The No. 2 seed UNC women’s soccer team lost 3-1 to No. 11 seed Santa Clara in the NCAA Tournament semifinals Thursday night in Cary.
North Carolina made the title game the past two seasons, but fell short of the chip both times. Santa Clara last played in the championship in 2002, losing to Portland.
The match started nearly 45 minutes late after Florida State bested Virginia in penalty kicks in the first game. Despite the delay, the Tar Heels and the Broncos came out hot for the late-night game, as both teams were determined to be the one to face off against the Seminoles on Monday night.
Santa Clara won the last matchup between the two teams 1-0 in 2018, but historically, the Broncos were 5-16 against the Tar Heels coming into Thursday.
UNC hadn't allowed a goal since the ACC Championship game against Florida State on Nov. 15, but it was the Broncos who struck first on Thursday. Midfielder Izzy D'Aquila beat her defender and slipped the ball past UNC goalkeeper Claudia Dickey at point-blank range.
The rest of the half was a battle between defenses. North Carolina failed to score in the remaining 25 minutes, going into halftime down 1-0.
The Tar Heels wasted no time putting themselves on the scoreboard in the second half. Junior midfielder Brianna Pinto scored on a pass from first-year forward/midfielder Sam Meza just over five minutes into the period. It would ultimately be the last goal of the season for UNC, and the last of Pinto's college career.
“I feel like I left it all out there and so did all of my teammates,” Pinto said. “I’m proud we even got to be here.”
The tie game was short-lived, as Santa Clara scored 30 seconds later to reclaim the lead. The Broncos’ dominance continued with another goal with 30 minutes left on the clock, widening the gap.
Being down two goals is a rarity for UNC women's soccer — this was only the 28th game in the last 998 that the Tar Heels had been down by that margin.
“One of the things you gain from experience is understanding what the first five minutes after you score a goal means,” head coach Anson Dorrance said. “That was extraordinarily defeating.”
From that final goal on, the game slowed down, and the final buzzer sounded with the Broncos on top, 3-1. North Carolina finished with a total of 10 total shots in the game, and Santa Clara had 12.
It's a disappointing defeat for the young UNC team, which has now made three-straight College Cups without a championship to show for it. This year was uniquely challenging because of the pandemic, which split the season between the fall and spring.
Dorrance previously said during a press conference on Tuesday that his team winning the national championship this year would have been one of college sports' greatest achievements of all time. Despite the loss, the long-time coach praised his team following Thursday's game.
“They fought with incredible aggression the whole game,” Dorrance said. “I’m incredibly proud of them.”
The loss also brings an end to Pinto's time with the Tar Heels. In just three years with the program, she solidified herself as one of the best midfielders in the country while racking up accolades along the way. The junior was selected as the No. 3 overall pick in the NWSL draft in January.
Although she is emotional about her career at UNC being over, Pinto was grateful that the women’s soccer team had the opportunity to even have a season this year during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We were very lucky and blessed to be able to play,” Pinto said. “I’m so sad to be leaving.”