For a minute it looked like, as the saying goes, "déjà vu all over again."
For a minute it looked like the North Carolina field hockey team would lose for the second time this season and the second time since 2017, once again to fellow ACC juggernaut Louisville. On Oct. 2, the Tar Heels went down 2-0 to the Cardinals in the first half and lost, 3-1. In the season-ending ACC Championship, they were once again down a pair of scores before halftime. They, and we, had seen this movie before.
But if the world learned anything about the Tar Heels on Sunday, it's that they aren't fond of repeating bad memories. This time, the two-goal deficit was turned into a 4-2 win; anguish turned into elation; the end of a 47-game win streak turned into a fourth straight conference title, not to mention evidence that head coach Karen Shelton's team of back-to-back national champions remains probably the best in the country.
"We gave up a couple of goals," Shelton said. "But we didn't crack."
The two Louisville scores, both from forward Katie Schneider, were a result of UNC's play early on: tentative and slow, as Shelton put it, while the Cardinals controlled possession and created turnovers. It was just like the season's first matchup, which put UNC in the unenviable and unusual position of the underdog.
For the first time since the opening of Karen Shelton Stadium in 2018, the Tar Heels were forced to sit on the visitors' bench. North Carolina had been unofficially favored in every game the last three seasons, except this one. And now, the team was down a pair of goals.
"We were the underdog for the first time in three years," Shelton said. "That allowed us, especially in the second half, to play with more freedom. So we started going after it."
A goal off of a penalty corner from star forward Erin Matson had made it a 2-1 game at the break. Then, in the third quarter, successive scores by Bryn Boylan and Madison Orobono gave the Tar Heels their first lead of the day. And after a stellar defensive fourth quarter, it was Matson again with the cherry on top, tapping in a goal with just over a minute left to seal it.
The Cardinals had outshot and out-cornered UNC, just as in the teams' first matchup. This time, though, the Tar Heels were the ones celebrating, prevailing in the closest thing the team's had to a rivalry matchup in recent memory.
"It wasn't really, 'Oh, we get a rematch against Louisville,'" Matson said. "If anything, the difference was that we were the No. 2 seed and we were the underdog. So coach said, 'Relax, have fun, that's when we play our best.'"
"We played to our strengths and didn't really let anything get to us."
That's not to say the Tar Heels had forgotten what happened early last month. Shelton admitted to using the loss as a "little piece of psychological warfare," and the team's postgame exuberance was evident (see: players spotted driving down Franklin Street, blasting Queen's "We Are The Champions" hours after the win).
"Once we lost (to Louisville), then had an opportunity to play against them for a championship," Boylan said, "that got us fired up."
Still, the team rightfully has loftier goals in mind than avenging a regular season loss. They'll have to wait until the spring of 2021, when a delayed NCAA Tournament will serve as a bizarre coda to this COVID-19-altered season.
In the meantime, it seems the Tar Heels will have enough to stew about. It's easy to imagine that the Louisville loss still stings, for a team that's become somewhat accustomed to perfection. They answered the bell on Sunday, in emphatic fashion; the only question remaining is how they'll respond in a few months' time.
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