STORRS, Conn. — The top-seeded UNC field hockey team will be seeking revenge against two-seed and defending national champion Northwestern on Sunday in the NCAA title game.
The Wildcats advanced with a 2-1 win over three-seed Maryland in the Final Four. UNC is progressing to the championship following a 3-0 shutout of Penn State. The last time the two teams met, Northwestern ended UNC's season with a 2-0 win in the first round of last season's tournament.
“This is a redemption run,” UNC senior forward Paityn Wirth said on Sunday. “This is our redemption tour. We are ready to come out guns-a-blazin’. We want this more than anything, as us being seniors and (senior attacker) Erin (Matson)'s last year. We want to win this for Coach (Karen Shelton), we want to win this for our whole entire community here. Last year was heartbreaking, and we don’t ever want to experience that ever again.”
The Tar Heels are certainly fired up, but a win against the Wildcats won’t be an easy task. In order to claim a record 10th NCAA title as a program, the Tar Heels will need to focus on three main keys.
Stop Bente Baekers
The Wildcats' two-time first-team All-American forward, Bente Baekers is entering Sunday’s matchup with 24 goals on the season behind a .55 shot-on-goal percentage. She ranks fifth in the nation in goals per game with 1.05.
Baekers’ speed and powerful shooting make her a potent offensive threat. The fifth-year forward also gives defenses a unique challenge because she’s left-handed, which gives her the ability to launch backhanded attempts with ease.
In the Wildcats' recent win over the Terrapins, Baekers had a goal and an assist. On Sunday, look for Baekers to use her agility to weave through defenders, as well as be the Wildcats' primary option on penalty corners.
Limit Northwestern’s third-quarter offense
This season, Northwestern has found its highest level of success in the third quarter of games. Nineteen of the Wildcats' goals and 110 of their shots on the season have come in the penultimate period.
The Tar Heels have proven to be dominant first-half team throughout this season, as 49 of UNC’s 82 goals have come before the break.
The Wildcats only allow 1.21 goals on average per game. The Tar Heels have to put the ball in the net in the first half if they want to have a security blanket for a potential Northwestern push in the third and fourth quarters.
Give the Wildcats different looks
Entering the final contest, Shelton has already made her offensive preferences clear.
“We really prefer to attack to the sides,” Shelton said after Friday’s win. “Go down the sideline and attack the side-door. There is a lot of strength down the middle, and if you turn it over in the middle, it is risky.”
The Tar Heels made adjustments after the first quarter in the win over the Nittany Lions. When the team’s strategy of attacking the flanks wasn’t working, North Carolina started driving the ball down the middle in a successful change of plans.
Against a Northwestern team that poses threats like junior midfielder Lauren Wadas — who is touted for her pressing abilities — UNC shouldn’t be afraid to switch things up to throw off the Wildcat defense.
If the Tar Heels keep these three keys in mind, they’ll have a shot to make good on Wirth’s promise and hoist the championship trophy for the fourth time in five years.
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