STORRS, Conn. — Defend from the front and attack from the back.
This has been UNC field hockey's mantra for some time now. It's a standard that head coach Karen Shelton holds her team to every time they step on the turf. And after giving up two cheap goals in UNC’s NCAA Tournament second-round win over Saint Joseph’s, it's a phrase that the Tar Heels needed to be reminded of.
“We weren’t happy with those two goals being scored," senior back Romea Riccardo said.
Following Friday’s 3-0 win over No. 6 Penn State, Shelton was confident the team addressed its defensive woes. The Tar Heels bounced back with their first shutout performance of the postseason, limiting the Nittany Lions to just one shot on goal.
“I think we did a nice job,” Shelton said. “To get a shutout against a high-powered Penn State offense, we have to be thrilled.”
Senior forward Erin Matson acknowledged that Penn State was a first-quarter team, and said that UNC knew the opening period would be “fast and furious.”
The scouting report proved to be true, as chippy midfield play dominated the game's early minutes. Thanks to the skill of Romea Riccardo and ACC Defensive Player of the Year Meredith Sholder, the Tar Heels stripped the ball from Penn State multiple times in the first quarter.
“They’re really strong on the ball,” Penn State head coach Charlene Morett-Curtiss said of UNC’s defense following the game. “I think they’re physical in a good way, I think that they stop everything that comes near them.”
The Tar Heels’ pressure only intensified after the opening quarter, as UNC allowed just three shots from Penn State after this point. Even when the Nittany Lions had breakthrough moments, North Carolina’s defense remained stout.
At the beginning of the fourth quarter, Penn State first-year Ella Jennes burst down the middle of the field with most of the Tar Heels trailing far behind. In a counterattack that could have easily led to Penn State's first goal of the game, junior back Ciana Riccardo made a critical play.
Sprinting downfield, the junior caught up to Jennes and steered her away from the goal, where her sister Romea swooped in to recover possession for the Tar Heels.
"Playing with my sister is awesome... I'm just proud that we help each other so much and are there for each other," Romea Riccardo said.
This unified defensive approach didn’t end with the backs, as UNC’s forwards were relentless on Friday. Following the game, Morett-Curtiss specifically complimented Matson’s pressure. On top of Matson's two goals, the senior was a consistent threat to poke the ball away from the Nittany Lions in the Tar Heels’ press.
Friday's shutout is not only a boost of confidence for the Tar Heels as they head into the title game on Sunday, but it should bring them some satisfaction after a year of emphasizing the team's defense.
Over the past summer, reflecting on UNC’s first-round loss to Northwestern in the 2021 NCAA Tournament, Shelton said her team “got complacent.”
On Friday, a year after suffering that defeat, Romea Riccardo praised her team for their lack of complacency.
“We defended so well,” Romea Riccardo said. “Even when they had the corner, we got to the key (and) we were all ready, like ‘This is not going in the goal.’ Everyone was putting (in) everything they had.”
Now, as the Tar Heels seek redemption against the Wildcats in the NCAA Championship on Sunday, Shelton can have confidence that her team is on the right path.
“Our defense really stuck together,” senior forward Paityn Wirth said. “They put in the time to really listen to what our coaches said when we were going through film and our pregame and everything that went into it. Romea’s lines on the corners, they were phenomenal. Our goalie, she was outstanding today. Just all around, everybody stepped up and just did their job.”
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