STORRS, Conn. — Despite her best efforts, head coach Karen Shelton couldn’t reign in her team’s excitement following their national championship win.
Finally, she broke.
“I love you guys but we’ve got to shake their hands,” she said, before being lifted into the air by her boisterous team.
The scene couldn’t have been more different from the last time UNC matched up against Northwestern.
In 2021, North Carolina faced the Wildcats in a 2-0 loss in Iowa City, Iowa, a loss that UNC senior forward Paityn Wirth described as “heartbreaking.” The game knocked the Tar Heels out in the first round of the NCAA Tournament — disrupting a streak of three straight national titles.
On Sunday, Wirth made sure that UNC wouldn’t face that same heartbreak again.
After Northwestern got on the board with two minutes remaining off of a penalty corner shot from fifth-year senior Bente Baekers, Wirth raced down the field and found Erin Matson less than 40 seconds later. Matson punched in the late goal to earn UNC's 10th national title with a score of 2-1.
“(Wirth got the ball) on cage I was just lucky enough to get a touch on it to catch the goalie a little off-balance,” Matson said. “Nothing flashy about it. All it says on the scoreboard is 2-1. That’s all that matters.”
Despite UNC dominating possession and putting nine shots on goal to Northwestern’s one, the game ultimately came down to the wire.
The Wildcats earned their first corner of the game with just over two minutes remaining — and Baekers made the most of this late opportunity for the self-proclaimed “Cardiac 'Cats.” The fifth-year stepped forward to deliver a searing shot, smacking the ball into the back left corner of the goal and past UNC sophomore goalkeeper Abigail Taylor.
“Their corner execution was brilliant,” Shelton said. “We knew that was coming and it was a really hard corner to stop.”
Despite the late-game push, the Tar Heels were ready. Upon seeing Baekers' shot go in, Wirth turned immediately to Matson.
“I said, ‘We are not losing this. We are not losing this game,'" Wirth said. “And (Matson) was like, ‘Hell no, we’re not.’”
With just over a minute and a half remaining, senior back Romea Riccardo stripped the ball away from Baekers in the backfield. Seconds later, she delivered an aerial pass to ignite what would become the game-winning play.
Wirth admits that she partially “blacked out for a minute," but quickly tuned in when she received the pass. Running through her mind was “corner, corner, corner” as she could feel the clock ticking down.
Crossing over to the left, Wirth passed the ball through the legs of Northwestern’s Kayla Blas. After juking her defender, she put a ball on the goal, hoping Matson would be there.
“I did not see her tip,” Wirth said. “But I heard it hit the back of the cage and was like, ‘Let’s go!’”
While this late goal may seem like a lucky break, the Tar Heels credit it to their composure. Huddling as a team after the tying goal, UNC first-year Ryleigh Heck remembered seeing the confident looks on her teammates' faces. Senior midfielder Meredith Sholder said that after practicing late-game situations throughout the season, the team wasn’t scared.
“When Northwestern scored that goal we brought it in,” she said. “I think that’s what is the moving point in our season this year is that no one got frustrated with each other. Everyone knew that we supported each other and we were going to do what it took to fight for each other, and that’s exactly what we did.”
UNC’s finish on Sunday showed the exact opposite of the “complacency” Shelton blames for the team’s early exit last year.
This season, as the NCAA team trophies were being lined up in anticipation of the game’s end, the Tar Heels took the championship into their own hands.
“I told you before that the team last year that we lost to, Northwestern, we would not lose to them again,” Wirth said. “And my word stands by that.”
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