CARY, N.C. — With less than seven minutes left to play against Virginia Tech, North Carolina's Brianna Pinto intercepted a pass at midfield and sprinted for the Hokies' goal.
VT's Caroline Cipolla grabbed Pinto's arm to slow her opponent down before Pinto dragged her along for 15 yards. Eventually, Cipolla conceded and dragged Pinto to the ground by her jersey, realizing it was the only way to slow down the junior midfielder, who had been the engine for the North Carolina women's soccer team all night.
Efforts like Cipolla's, which earned her a late-game yellow card, have proven to be the only answer the Hokies were able to muster this season when it came to stopping Pinto from defeating them.
The UNC midfielder scored her team's lone goal against Virginia Tech in a 1-0 win when the two sides squared off on Sept. 20. There was a sense of déjà vu when Pinto matched that performance with a game-winning score in Tuesday night's ACC Women's Soccer Championship quarterfinals matchup, another 1-0 win for the Tar Heels that improved their record to 10-0 on the season.
“She’s absolutely critical for us," UNC head coach Anson Dorrance said. "What I love about Pinto is she’s got some wonderful qualities, but her best quality for us right now is when we are endline and we’re about to serve the box, she is in the box, and she can score in a myriad of ways.”
With under 20 minutes remaining in the first half, Pinto drifted out wide to the right side of the field, watching as her teammates diced up the Hokies' midfield.
Junior forward Rachel Jones received a ball just outside the top of VT's box that she quickly laid off to first-year Sam Meza. Just as fast as she gathered the ball, Meza guided a dart of a pass to senior Emily Fox, who was sprinting through acres of space on the left flank.
Without even taking a touch to settle the ball, Fox rocketed a cross into the penalty spot of the Hokies' box.
Enter Pinto, who had meandered her way towards VT's goal and cut in front of her defender just as Fox crossed the ball. The junior ducked slightly to power the cross into the bottom left corner past Virginia Tech's goalkeeper for the only score of the night.
“I pride myself in getting in the box every time the ball’s on the flank because that’s the way we score goals, being inside the box," Pinto said. "My teammates had wonderful service today, and we know what our game plan is, and I want to make sure I’m there to support them every time and that they can count on me as a No. 8 in the midfield making the late run.”
And Pinto continued to do everything she could to ensure her teammates knew she was a dependable option in the second half as well.
Just 30 seconds into the second period, sophomore forward Isabel Cox made a run to VT's touchline and drove in a low ball to the top of the six-yard box. Pinto made a run at the ball, and while shielding a defender on her left side, used her right heel to flick the ball behind her toward the goal for a shot that was just slow enough for the Hokies' goalkeeper to stop.
Pinto found herself with chance after chance like that in the second half, finishing with four shots and a handful of other close opportunities that won't show up in a stats sheet, including a disallowed second goal. Although she wasn't able to finish as many opportunities as she would've liked, her aggressive play alone was enough of a reason for Cipolla and the Hokies to take any measure they could in their attempts to slow her down ahead of UNC's semifinals contest on Friday.
“Brianna is huge," Fox said. "She’s an offensive and defensive player, which is huge for us. She covers the entire field. She’s been scoring a lot this season, which is really exciting, and she’s going to be critical for us.”
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