The bench cleared. Players cheered, celebrated and embraced each other. Fans in the stands of WakeMed Soccer Park erupted and clapped. But the elation was not displayed by the North Carolina women’s soccer team. The Tar Heels had just been dealt their first loss of the season by Florida State in the ACC Championship final.
It was a battle of the unbeaten teams. Someone had to be placed in the loss column for the first time this year, and after giving up three goals early, it was UNC who had to play catch-up the entire match.
They were down, not out. But even a last-minute rally late in the second half that saw UNC score twice to cut the deficit to a manageable 3-2 margin just wasn’t enough. So, it was the Tar Heels who were silent as time expired. It was the Tar Heels who sat with their heads down, resting their hands on their knees as the Seminoles felt the glory of being ACC champions, defeating UNC for the second time in three years.
Too little, too late.
The old adage encompasses all of the bitter tastes and hard feelings that come from a near comeback late in the second half. The Tar Heels were able to break the shutout with a Rachel Jones goal in the 58th minute, and they were even able to put themselves in a position to push the match into overtime off a Brianna Pinto goal in the 88th minute. Still, they just had too little, too late on Sunday afternoon.
But it came down to the wire.
“If there’s something in the Tar Heel DNA it’s certainly that (not giving up),” head coach Anson Dorrance said. “We’re not quitters. We do fight to the bitter end.”
In fact, it’s a tradition.
“Everyone thinks the thing that I’m the most proud of is the fact that we’ve won 22 national championships and a similar number of ACC regular seasons and ACC championships, but it’s not,” Dorrance said. “I think my favorite statistic is for 603 games in a row, we either won it, tied it or lost it by one goal.”
The Tar Heels don't find themselves down 3-0 often — considering they haven't given up multiple goals in a single match since Nov. 29, 2019 — and goalkeeping and defending are two of the team’s greatest strengths. Florida State defender Clara Robbins was a force Sunday afternoon, putting UNC in an uncharacteristic position after she scored two goals in just six minutes to start the game. The Seminoles continued their dominance into the second half, giving UNC trouble generating any momentum.
“Everyone pushed to the end,” Robbins, who was named Tournament MVP, said. “We knew there wasn’t any room to be complacent. Playing UNC is always a crazy game. They always come out with a lot of pressure and a lot of intensity.”
The Tar Heels returned from halftime looking to generate the offense that was lacking in the opening half, but were again dominated in the opening minutes. Another FSU goal by Leilanni Nesbeth in the opening two minutes could’ve crushed the Tar Heels’ spirit. But it didn’t.
Despite the deficit, the Tar Heels fought tooth and nail until time expired. Late in the second half, Jones took advantage of an FSU handball in the box and gave a hard strike on the penalty kick to the left side of the net to score and rally the team. That fight continued as Pinto netted her team-high sixth goal to put UNC within one in the final minutes. All they needed was one.
“You’re darn right I was (worried about a comeback),” FSU head coach and ACC Coach of the Year, Mark Krikorian, said. “I was worried about the quality of the pressure they were bringing for a while. We lost our way a bit into the second half.”
The Tar Heels fought — keeping possession of the ball in front of Florida State’s box until the end. UNC refused to allow the game to be decided until the clock hit zero. It was just too little, too late.
“I told the girls after the game that I was incredibly proud of the way they played in defeat,” Dorrance said. “I’m proud of the fact the girls never quit.”
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