CARY, N.C. — Following a season of domination, the North Carolina women’s soccer team finally got a taste of its own medicine.
In a 2-1 defeat against Florida State in the ACC Championship final on Sunday afternoon, the Tar Heels failed to record a corner kick for the first time this season and was held without a shot attempt for a 50-minute stretch that extended late into the second half.
“They shut down our whole front line,” head coach Anson Dorrance said. “I think we got a total of seven (shots) and that’s not good enough – that’s not going to win us anything.”
Much like the first match between the two teams on Oct. 20, the Seminoles controlled possession early, yet a goal from UNC junior forward Avery Patterson in the 23rd minute gave the Tar Heels a flash of momentum.
But minutes later, thanks to the high press from the Florida State forwards, the Seminoles struck back and earned several corners due to errant passing from the Tar Heels’ midfielders. On one attempt, junior forward Jenna Nighswonger lofted a high ball into the keeper area, which sailed over the outstretched hand of UNC redshirt first-year goalkeeper Emmie Allen and into the back of the net to tie the game.
Nighswonger, who said she has scored two similar goals in her career, mentioned that she usually doesn't attempt a shot in that type of situation, but with her team needing a spark, she decided to call her own number.
"I was just like, 'I'm going to whip this in,' and either someone like LeiLanni (Nesbeth) will get a nick or it will get confusing. But it just went in," Nighswonger said.
Entering the second half, the Tar Heels looked to establish some type of offensive rhythm, but the fast back line shut down any kind of UNC buildup. On the defensive side, the Tar Heels were also susceptible to the Seminoles’ speedy attackers, as in the 49th minute, Nighswonger worked her way into open space.
After firing a shot, Allen dove left to make the save, but Florida State’s Jody Brown was in the vicinity to put the rebound away before hushing the largely pro-Tar Heel crowd as the Seminoles took the lead.
“I've seen her catch and stop that ball in practice 100 times on that shot,” Dorrance said. “She got over there and got her body in front of it, and all of a sudden she coughs it up and then we didn't track their goal scorer.”
For the remainder of the contest, the Tar Heels were forced to play from behind, which broke down their usual style of building tactical attacking. The team tried to work its way into the final third of the field, yet each attempt was shut down by the potent Seminoles defense.
Although UNC had an attempt to find an equalizer in the closing seconds, the team’s final shots were knocked away as the horn sounded and Florida State's celebration began.
While the UNC offensive attack partially came alive by the game’s end – recording five shots in the final 15 minutes – Dorrance said the team’s “lack of sophistication” was the primary factor behind the failure to apply any true pressure, as Patterson was responsible for five of the team’s seven total attempts.
“I think that we just kind of have to take a deep breath and remind ourselves that it's not individual effort, that we need to work together knocking down shots, me especially,” Patterson said. "I find myself a victim to that more often than not.”
With the loss, the Tar Heels’ path to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament might seem a bit more unclear. Although Dorrance believes the team’s body of work should be enough to secure one of the top spots in the field, the Tar Heels will have to prepare for any scenario when the tournament bracket is revealed on Monday afternoon.
For a team that has been used to dominating its opposition all season, Sunday’s loss should act as a wake-up call for a program that is looking to capture its first national title in a decade.
“We've got to have more people contributing, stepping up, obviously taking responsibility,” Dorrance said. “We had players that could have created their own shots, and for some reason, Florida State just shut all that down.”
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