It was the third quarter of the NCAA Semifinals game against Iowa, and the North Carolina field hockey team was just minutes away from punching its ticket to the title game.
On a penalty corner, UNC junior forward Erin Matson swiped the ball off the insert straight into the back of the net to put her team up three points. It was Matson's 27th goal of the season — tying Iowa’s goal total for the team's entire 2020-2021 campaign.
The performance seemed pretty textbook for UNC field hockey, a team that has made the Final Four 12 years in a row and is chasing its third-straight national championship.
But it wasn’t just Matson who contributed to the 3-0 shutout against the Hawkeyes — her score was the cherry on top of two other goals from first-year midfielder Katie Dixon and first-year forward Mia Leonhardt.
Dixon posted her first career goal in the second quarter to open up the scoring. She was assisted by Leonhardt, who followed Dixon’s goal with the first of her own in the third.
“Erin, she’s always so helpful in telling us where to go on the press and when to pressure the defense,” Leonhardt said.
Matson and her veteran team have excelled in mentoring the rookies, who rose to the occasion in the Final Four matchup. The first-year players capitalized on their opportunities on Friday, making the Tar Heels' depth look better than ever.
UNC's win over Iowa did not come easy, though. The first 20 minutes of play were a pure defensive battle, as both teams struggled to make plays past their midlines, each only getting off one shot in the first quarter.
Dixon’s goal turned the tide of the game in North Carolina’s favor.
But two weather delays immediately followed the goal, forcing both teams to stay in their locker rooms for 40 minutes before returning to the field to resume the second quarter.
“We were fortunate to have that little rain delay,” UNC head coach Karen Shelton said. “Everybody knows a team’s fired up after you get scored on, then we had a break. So that was lucky for us.”
And lucky indeed. Momentum picked up as North Carolina converted both of its third-quarter penalty corners into points. Thanks to Leonhardt's and Matson's goals, UNC finished the game with a corner conversion rate of 50 percent.
“North Carolina was quite critical in their (penalty corner conversions), and that was the difference in the game,” Iowa head coach Lisa Cellucci said.
The Hawkeyes fought back with everything they had left in the fourth quarter, drawing three corners in a row and challenging UNC senior goalkeeper Amanda Hendry with seven shots on goal.
“We kind of dropped back,” Shelton said. “We had realized that we had enough goals to win the game and we didn’t need to score. It gave them too much space, and so a good team is going to capitalize.”
Despite the Hawkeyes’ fight, UNC’s defense remained intact and didn't allow a goal. Matson ran down the final seconds of the clock, dribbling the ball around midfield until the final buzzer sounded, signifying North Carolina’s title-game berth.
This is the first time the NCAA Championship will be played in Karen Shelton Stadium, where the Tar Heels have been undefeated since its commission in 2018. There they will face the No. 2-seeded Michigan Wolverines.
North Carolina will have had 48 hours to prepare for the title game, which starts at 7 p.m on Sunday.
“At this point in the season, you can’t do a whole lot, you can’t change a whole lot,” Shelton said. “So it’s important for us to be in a good frame of mind, to get our legs up, to rest and just have our bodies recover as much as we possibly can so that we’re ready.”
It’s déjà vu for the third-straight year as the Tar Heels are the top seed heading into the National Championship. Will they make it a three-peat on their home field on Sunday?