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Tough back line defense dooms No. 1 UNC women's soccer in 2-1 home loss to No. 3 UCLA

Senior defender Tori Hanson (22) dribbes the ball during the game versus UCLA at Dorrance Field on Sept. 4, 2022.

Standing just a few feet from the sideline after a rare 2-1 home loss to No. 3 UCLA, North Carolina women’s soccer coach Anson Dorrance delivered a harsh reality. 

“Sometimes in a game like ours, the dominant team doesn’t always win,” he said. 

For much of Sunday's bout against the Bruins, the top-ranked Tar Heels were dominant. The team finished with nearly two-thirds of overall possession and 16 shots to UCLA’s seven.

But for every series of patient attacking that the Tar Heels demonstrated, the Bruin back line was there to shut it all down.

Regularly playing with five defenders in the box, UCLA’s defense frustrated the North Carolina offense — and timely counterattacks helped the Bruins hand the Tar Heels their second-ever loss at Dorrance Field.

“It became difficult because the space got really tight, so it’s hard to work around,” first-year defender Tessa Dellarose said. “So just getting quality services in and making the most of the chances we do get down there is really important.”

Through the first five games of the season, the Tar Heels used their offensive efficiency to mask every obstacle that came their way. Following the season-ending injury to defensive stalwart Maycee Bell, the team responded by outscoring opponents 11-1 in its three-game road trip. On Sunday, the team was left with more questions than answers.

Following a first half of enhanced pressure from the Bruins, where the Tar Heels’ explosive attack unit was held to just six shots, North Carolina finally got on the board just over two minutes into the second period when Dellarose’s corner kick cross found the head of first-year forward Tori DellaPeruta to give her team the lead.

“My job was back post, and I clean up anything that comes over the front post, over the middle,” DellaPeruta said. “My job is to hit it across the frame and keep the ball in play, and the goal was wide open and all I needed to do was hit it in.”

With the hard-earned goal, it seemed like the Tar Heels could finally breathe a sigh of relief, knowing they had finally cracked the Bruins’ complex defensive puzzle. 

Instead, they quickly needed to go back to the drawing board. 

Following a stalled attack, UCLA responded to UNC’s long-winded offensive buildup with a rapid counter. Working alone on the left side of the field, UCLA’s Lexi Wright danced her way into the box and rifled a shot into the net to equalize the contest in the 61st minute.

Over the next several minutes, the Tar Heels had a number of opportunities to pull back ahead. But in a game of inches, UNC fell victim to plenty of them.

After three unproductive corner kicks, UNC had a prime chance to take the lead when sophomore Emily Murphy found a crevice and rolled a pass into senior Isabel Cox before her attempt rang off the crossbar. Just under two minutes later, senior Emily Moxley launched a strike that was parried away by UCLA goalkeeper Lauren Brzykcy.

“There were some scrambles in the box that we sliced here or there, and I thought their goalkeeper did a nice job,” Dorrance said. “It’s tough to play against a committed, organized defense with numbers.”

Then, almost as quickly as UNC looked to take the lead, the Bruins found their own opportunity. 

After a long clearance drifted to the right sideline, UCLA’s Reilyn Turner got tangled up with UNC’s Tori Hansen, sending the Tar Heels’ senior defender to the pitch. While the North Carolina bench was pleading in protest, Turner waltzed into open territory before firing a dagger into the bottom right corner of the net with just six minutes to play.

"I think it's just an unlucky play," DellaPeruta said. "I thought their girl came through our player and countered with a good finish, but there's nothing you can do about that."

The team will face a quick turnaround with a road bout at No. 2 Duke on Thursday night. The Blue Devils, who were also victims of UCLA's defensive intensity in a 2-1 loss last Thursday, will present their own challenges. 

Despite the loss, Dorrance said he hopes the loss can be a springboard for the team to maintain its dominant form. 

"A lot of kids checked a lot of great boxes for us, so we're not entirely disappointed," Dorrance said. "We're certainly disappointed in the result, but not the performance."

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