As the clock ticked down in UNC’s Friday night matchup against Princeton, senior forward Erin Matson felt a sense of déjà vu.
Nearly three years ago, the Tar Heels pulled off a thrilling comeback win against the Tigers in which UNC scored three times in the final six minutes of play. This year, Matson found herself on the other side of the ball, as Princeton nearly achieved a comeback of its own against UNC.
After Princeton’s Sam Davidson delivered on a penalty stroke to bring the Tigers within one point, the Tigers continued to fight in the game’s final minute. Princeton drew yet another penalty corner and first-year Kylie Walbert made her second save of the game as the clock hit zero to preserve UNC’s narrow lead.
“I was like ‘This is not starting and this is not going to be the opposite of what happened that day.’’ Matson said. “It was funny, I had a little flashback, but we contained it.’”
While UNC’s 4-3 victory over Princeton in 2019 showcased the tenacity of the soon-to-be national champions, Friday’s 4-3 victory over the Tigers is proof that there is far more work to be done for this team.
“I thought we mistrapped a lot,” head coach Karen Shelton said. "So our fundamental skills let us down a little bit, but that’s something we can work on in practice. So you love games like this that take you and stretch you to the absolute limits early in the season so that you can get better.”
Thanks to a Matson penalty corner in the 57th minute, UNC got out to a 4-2 lead and Friday’s game appeared to be all but over for Princeton.
Pulling out its goalkeeper for an eleventh attacker, Princeton made a final push in the last three and a half minutes to even the score, but an errant pass from senior defender Hannah Davey gave possession back to the Tar Heels.
With just over two minutes left and a two-goal lead, all UNC had to do was run the clock out.
Receiving the ball in the shooting circle, UNC sophomore back Kelly Smith crossed in front of the goal to make a pass and quickly lost control as Princeton junior forward Grace Schulze dashed forward and stripped the ball away. In a frenzy, Walbert stepped out of the goal to defend and conceded a penalty stroke to Schulze.
“We tried to do a different press on them,” Matson said. “I don’t know that we were necessarily on the same page with it because there were a few gaps in it. But we also had the ball in our corner down here, normally we just mess around and play keep-away… we made some decisions that we shouldn’t have taken that ball when we got there and Kelly probably shouldn’t have taken that one-on-one. It was a whole team mistake."
After Davidson capitalized on the penalty stroke to put Princeton within one goal of tying the game, several UNC fouls at the other end of the field gave the ball back to the Tigers. Princeton quickly drew another penalty corner with just over a second remaining in the game.
As the clock ran out, Walbert's diving save allowed North Carolina to escape with the win.
Despite the mishaps, senior midfielder Meredith Sholder said that the all-around support of the team was crucial in the final hectic minutes of Friday's game.
“In this game not everything went our way but no one got negative, everyone was still very positive,” she said. “Like positive attitude, positive atmosphere. We were all like, ‘We got this girls!’ We kept the communication going and we kept the support going.”
In the postgame huddle, the encouragement continued. Instead of hanging their heads on the near-upset, Shelton emphasized that the team is grateful for the challenge that Friday provided.
“You learn from these games," she said. "When you win 5-0, you don’t learn as much. I’m grateful for the game, I’m delighted that we won and we’re going to get better.”
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