For a game that ended with just a single goal, just about everything that could have happened, did happen to the North Carolina women’s soccer team on Sunday.
There was the 90-degree heat. There was the opponent, UNC’s second consecutive top-25 matchup to begin the new campaign — this time, against No. 13 Arkansas, one of just four teams to beat the Tar Heels since the start of 2019. Oh, and more than their fair share of oh-so-close-but-not-quite opportunities to hit the back of the net and keep the match from entering extra time.
And to top it all off, when 90 minutes were up and the scoreboard still read 0-0, lightning in the area caused an hour-plus weather delay before the two sides could enter golden goal overtime. But despite everything, when the Tar Heels finally were able to return to the field, they showed no hesitation in ensuring they’d be the ones to decide the game's outcome.
One, two, three quick shots flew off of Tar Heel feet in the direction of the goal before the match could reach the 97th minute, and with just over three minutes remaining in the first overtime period, Sam Meza called game.
The sophomore dribbled to the top of the box, set her feet and struck the ball between two defenders, past the goalkeeper’s reach and into the opposite corner.
“I was just excited to honestly just end the game,” Meza said. “It was definitely a really cool moment, I think we all worked up to that moment. Our energy was just super high and we were really in it and it was for sure a collective goal.”
To Meza’s point, the goal represented a 97-minute effort from the entire UNC squad. The Tar Heels made 39 substitutions throughout the game, ensuring that fresh legs stayed on the field and that a variety of players had an opportunity to make an impact. All told, 23 Tar Heels made an appearance on Sunday, with their 21 shots coming from 12 different players.
Early in the afternoon, head coach Anson Dorrance said Arkansas held the “territorial imperative,” but there was a shift in the final 52 minutes of the match. The reasoning? UNC improved its tempo passing — quickly and aggressively sharing the ball — and recognized the difficulty of the game.
“Basically, to know that we were in a fight,” Dorrance said. “Because that game was more of a fight than a game. What I really appreciated about our kids is that they made the adjustment.”
For a North Carolina team that has come so close to adding a 23rd national championship to its trophy case the past three years — falling in the Final Four each time — Sunday’s game showed signs that the Tar Heels are capable of reaching collegiate soccer’s summit once again.
In order to do so, of course, a team has to overcome days like Sunday. And with an impressive array of non-conference opponents and a stacked ACC schedule lying ahead, there will be many more mountaintops for the Tar Heels to climb.
But if Sunday was any indication, this group has the legs to reach them.
“We’re a team that will work for each other until the end,” Meza said. “That energy that was out there coming back from regulation, you could see it, it’s like we wanted to win. We needed that.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of the article's photo caption misidentified the Arkansas Razorbacks' home state. The article has been updated to reflect that they are from Arkansas. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for the error.
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