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Wednesday December 7th

UNC field hockey makes mid-game adjustments to overcome Penn State defense in NCAA Final Four

UNC senior forward Paityn Wirth (10) drives the ball during the second quarter of the field hockey game against Penn State on Friday, Nov. 18, 2022, at the George J. Sherman Sports Complex in Storrs, Conn. UNC beat Penn State 3-0.
Buy Photos UNC senior forward Paityn Wirth (10) drives the ball during the second quarter of the field hockey game against Penn State on Friday, Nov. 18, 2022, at the George J. Sherman Sports Complex in Storrs, Conn. UNC beat Penn State 3-0.

STORRS, Conn. — The Tar Heels finally got what they were looking for in the third quarter.

With under five minutes remaining before the final period, senior forward Paityn Wirth sent a pass down the sideline to Jasmina Smolenaars. Smolenaars turned and sent the ball into the shooting circle. Just seconds later, senior forward Erin Matson converted on a rebound shot to deliver North Carolina its second goal of the game.

"It was a really good ball," head coach Karen Shelton said of Wirth's pass. "It was tightroped on the line."

It was a pedestrian play. UNC is known for pummeling the sidelines. But this simple pass brought great satisfaction to Shelton after a frustrating opening quarter that saw little success in attacking the flanks.  

In the defensive onslaught that was UNC’s NCAA Tournament semifinal game against No. 6 Penn State, the Tar Heels had to adjust their offensive attack early in the eventual 3-0 win. Due to the Nittany Lion's "low sticks," UNC had to think outside of the box  — incorporating "3D skills" (lifting the ball over a defender's stick) and an ever-adjusting attack.  

By making these quick adjustments, North Carolina overcame its first quarter struggles to put together an impressive offensive performance in the remainder of the game. When it was all said and done, the Tar Heels scored three goals in a shutout against a Penn State that came into the matchup allowing an average of just 1.05 goals per game. 

The first quarter proved to be unsuccessful for both teams, with UNC not being able to capitalize on its four shots and Penn State failing to convert on its two attempts. North Carolina pressed the ball down into the corner multiple times, but each offensive possession was met by an intense Nittany Lion defense.

Several times throughout that first period, the Tar Heels tried to draw penalty corners by driving into the crease from the baseline, but came up short on their three penalty corner attempts. Early on, Penn State used double-teams to its advantage, swarming offensive threats such as Matson and first-year forward Ryleigh Heck.

“We were getting the ball in the circle a little bit and not coming away with any outcomes,” Shelton said. “When we get it in the circle, we count those as circle penetrations and see what we get out of it, (a shot, a corner, or a goal)... if we come away with zero, that's something that we have to pay attention to."

The Tar Heels' offense found the kick-start it needed in the second quarter. North Carolina began to send the ball to the middle of the field instead of going straight to the corners, which resulted in the first goal of the game scored by Matson. Junior back Ciana Riccardo received the ball at the top of the crease and found Matson, who snuck the ball around the goalie and into the back of the cage. 

“The forward line does a good job connecting with our midfielders and our defenders,” Matson said. “We’ve been working on it all year, making good leads.” 

This goal was not typical for North Carolina. UNC doesn't often send the ball down the crease from the middle of the field. The tactic surprised Penn State and continued to work for the Tar Heels for the remainder of the game. 

“We really prefer to attack to the sides,” Shelton said. “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.”

UNC executed this strategy once again on its third goal, as Matson sent a pass through the crease to Wirth. Wirth snuck the ball around the goalie and made the score 3-0 in favor of the Tar Heels. 

With the victory, North Carolina demonstrated its ability to counter inconveniences and adapt in do-or-die scenarios. It's not unusual to see Matson score or assist on every UNC goal, but the team incorporated players from all over the field into its offense on Friday.

The assist by Ciana Riccardo on Matson’s first goal is a prime example of that versatility. This is Ciana Riccardo’s second assist of the season despite playing every game thus far. While her contributions may not always be apparent on the statistics sheet, she is integral to the Tar Heels’ overall success.

“We have threats all over the field, which is important,” Matson said. “It’s not like you can mark one player and shut the team down.”

@j_kidd03

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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