Clouds rolled in and the wind picked up over Karen Shelton Stadium as the fourth-quarter clock ran down to zero.
The stadium scoreboard read something it never had before: Carolina 0. Liberty 4.
There were a lot of firsts on Sunday afternoon — the foremost being UNC field hockey's first loss at home since the stadium opened in 2018. After 41 consecutive home victories, the win streak is tarnished.
“Something that we take pride in is defending our home field,” senior midfielder Cassie Sumfest said. “While we attacked really well, we also lacked in our goalscoring and in our defensive circle, and so that's something moving forward that we can really learn from.”
Another first for the team was playing without its primary scorer and playmaker, senior forward Erin Matson.
After Friday’s matchup against Duke, a pinky injury benched Matson for the Liberty game. With only one day to prepare, the team didn’t have much time to adjust to Matson’s absence. They spent Saturday’s practice watching film and walking through plays while giving their legs time to rest for Sunday.
The No. 10-ranked Flames arrived in Chapel Hill looking for a win over the No. 9 Tar Heels, as they had never beaten UNC in the history of their program. Liberty brought a strong defense that had allowed just four goals in its previous six games, including against ranked teams Connecticut and Duke. This proved to be a problem for a UNC team missing the shot of Matson.
In the first half, UNC played like the offensive powerhouse it is known as, with 11 shots and seven penalty corners. But the problem came with accuracy. After Liberty scored its first goal early in the second quarter, North Carolina drew four corners and capitalized on none of them.
The Tar Heels had a hard time getting around Liberty’s star goalkeeper, Azul Iritxity Irigoyen, known to smother straight shots. In an effort to draw Irigoyen out of the net, UNC attempted to maneuver the ball around the side to an open player and then knock it in. But in nine total corners, UNC still couldn’t buy a goal, lowering its season corner conversion to 21.7 percent.
Then came the second half.
Liberty started pressing hard on North Carolina’s young defense and stayed low in the circle to convert both of its penalty corners and a final shot between first-year goalkeeper Abigail Taylor’s legs.
The crowd went quiet, but the girls kept pushing on the turf until the final few seconds.
“We've said that you can't drop the communication at all because once it goes quiet, that's when chaos comes,” senior forward Meredith Sholder said. “That's when people start to let up a bit and there's a lot of breakdown.”
Then came the final “first” of the afternoon: Liberty beat North Carolina for the first time ever in the programs' eight meetings — and by a four-point margin. UNC was only shut out one other time this year, against Syracuse at J.S. Coyne Stadium, and before that game hadn’t had a shutout loss since 2016 against Duke.
Although the game was a disappointing loss, the Tar Heels statistically outplayed the Flames by drawing six more corners and outshooting them 19-10. And even down 4-0, the team continued to play with grit and fight until the end, something it will need to continue to do to finish as a top NCAA contender this season.
But it still stung to see that 41-1 record at Karen Shelton Stadium for the first time.
“All good things must come to an end, right?” UNC head coach Karen Shelton said. “We've had a really great run and we'll just start another run. So that's our goal, that's our plan.”
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