With a swift swing and confident stroke, senior forward Erin Matson lifted her penalty shot into the bottom left corner of the goal.
Matson turned and pumped her first, running towards midfield. Her teammates surrounded her to celebrate the breakthrough goal after what had been a painstaking, scoreless 33 minutes in the ACC Championship semifinal against Syracuse.
What the highlights won’t show, however, is that senior midfielder Meredith Sholder drew the penalty stroke on the previous play — controlling the ball and earning the foul call after Matson's shot on goal.
“She’s so skillful,” Matson said of Sholder. “So she was able to settle it, put it on cage, and we were lucky to put that one away.”
It is no surprise that Matson, the five-time ACC Offensive Player of the Year and all-time leading scorer in conference history, scored UNC’s first goal in its 2-1 win. What came as a shock was that this matchup between the conference’s two most potent offenses was a defensive standoff for most of the game.
While UNC field hockey has a reputation for its high-powered offense that leads the nation in a myriad of categories, it was the Tar Heels' defense — anchored by veterans like Sholder — that came through on Wednesday.
Head coach Karen Shelton pointed to multiple defensive highlights as positives from the close win that the team “needed at this moment in time."
“(We needed) to play somebody hard that competed for every ball, that stressed us to every minute,” Shelton said. “That’s what happened, and I think our kids handled it well. We defended so beautifully at times."
In particular, Shelton and Matson both highlighted the play of first-year back Sietske Brüning and senior back Madison Orobono.
“I think they were such a strong force back there,” Matson said. “Madi was diving all over the place, Sietske was coming up with interceptions. They did everything they could to not allow Syracuse to gain momentum or allow attacking opportunities.”
Two minutes into the game, Brüning recorded an impressive goal-line save, batting a skying shot out of the air with her stick to prevent the Orange from taking an early lead.
After a frenetic first few minutes, which saw Syracuse earn a penalty corner and take two early shots, UNC didn't allow another attempt until the fourth quarter.
Senior back Romea Riccardo said that Brüning's save allowed the defense to take a breath and reset.
“It gave me goosebumps and just fired me up," Riccardo said. "I lost all my nerves at the beginning of the game and we were ready to send the ball forward.”
In the second quarter, while frustration was building for a stagnant UNC offense, the Tar Heel defense remained stout.
With 10 minutes remaining in the half, Orobono picked up Quirine Comans as she approached the shooting circle. The senior back pushed Comans to the corner of the field before stripping the ball away from her to regain possession for the Tar Heels.
In another critical play with roughly six minutes remaining in the half, there was a scramble for the ball in front of the goal. Riccardo swooped in and gained possession, clearing the ball on what could’ve been an easy Orange rebound and goal.
After these incremental plays for UNC’s defense in the first half, it was only fitting that Sholder, the ACC Defensive Player of the Year, earned the penalty stroke call that finally got North Carolina’s offense going in the second half.
Despite a somewhat ugly game for the Tar Heels, in which UNC was held well below its scoring average, the team is now set to take on UVA for a chance to win its sixth straight and 25th overall conference championship.
“At this point in time, it doesn’t matter what it looks like,” Shelton said. “It’s survive and advance. We wanted to get to the final and we found a way to get to the final.”
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