CARY, N.C. — Anson Dorrance knows the danger of a 2-0 lead.
In his 44 seasons as head coach of the North Carolina women's soccer team, he's seen plenty of them. He's won most of those games. He's lost many others.
He knows the complacency that comes with being two goals ahead can often go awry.
That was certainly the case in Monday night's national championship game against UCLA, in which the Bruins scored the equalizer off a set piece in the 90th minute and went on to win in double overtime, 3-2.
This season's UNC team is all too familiar with blown leads. In September, the Tar Heels lost to Virginia after carrying a 2-0 lead into the half. Against Florida State on Friday, they nearly gave up a 3-0 advantage. In fact, UNC scored the first goal in all five of its losses this season.
"That was probably our Achilles heel this year," Dorrance said. "We were pretty good at scoring goals, pretty good at going up, and then pretty good at not holding on to the lead."
UNC won five hard-fought tournament games to earn a matchup against one-seed UCLA. It was an opportunity for the Tar Heels to get revenge over the Bruins – who handed them their first loss of the season back in September – as well as win UNC's first national championship in a decade.
The first half of the title game was a slow-paced, tactical chess match, but UNC held the advantage in shots and time of possession heading into the break. The Tar Heels broke the lull in the 59th minute as right wingback Emily Moxley connected on a deep cross to junior forward Avery Patterson for a perfectly executed header goal.
When Patterson scored another header 16 minutes later, this time assisted on by sophomore midfielder Emily Colton, The UNC players couldn't help but feel that the championship was within reach.
"At that point, you know, you don't get ahead of yourself but it's hard," Patterson said. "You have to remind yourself to stay locked in."
Following the second goal, the Bruins began pushing the pace and playing with more urgency. UNC hung on for dear life.
UCLA's Lexi Wright cut her team's deficit in half in the 80th minute, cleaning up the rebound after UNC goalkeeper Emmie Allen saved a shot from senior forward Sunshine Fontes. UNC dropped a defender back and tried to play more conservatively, but the Tar Heels were quickly beginning to lose composure.
They were no longer controlling possession as they had for the first three-quarters of the game. Each time UCLA pushed into the attacking third, UNC tried to clear the ball instead of holding on to it and building up possession.
"That sort of panic is what made it difficult for us to hold on to that lead," Dorrance said. "And it sort of excited UCLA, because rather than passing balls and keeping possession like we did so effectively in the first half, we started just trying to bang it out. And that just is not the way to try to manage a lead."
Still, UNC seemed like it had done just enough to hold off the Bruins as the clock ticked below one minute. That was until Patterson conceded a corner kick in the final seconds of the game.
With one last chance to keep the championship dreams alive, UCLA's Ally Lemos took the corner from the right side and placed the ball perfectly so that junior forward Reilyn Turner could finish it in the air. After a push on Allen inside the goal area didn't get called, the buzzer-beating score was confirmed.
"I told the team at halftime we're gonna get our chances and we're going to get a set piece tonight," UCLA head coach Margueritte Aozasa said. "I didn't know it would be such a monumental set piece. But that one will go down in history."
The Tar Heels never seemed comfortable in the overtime periods as UCLA rode the momentum of its second goal. Fifth-year midfielder Maricarmen Reyes netted the game-winner in the 107th minute, finishing the rebound off a saved shot from forward Ally Cook.
UNC tried to respond in a last-ditch effort to force penalty kicks, but UCLA wouldn't relinquish its first and only lead of the game. As the final horn sounded, reality sank in and several UNC players sank to the pitch in anguish.
Dorrance knows those emotions well. He's done a whole lot of winning on college soccer's biggest stage, but he's also endured his fair share of losses. That's just the sort of thing you get used to with four decades of sustained excellence.
But Dorrance also knows that experience isn't quite the same for the players on the field. There's a solid chance that he will be back at the College Cup at some point. Many of his players won't have that same opportunity.
There's a painful beauty to it. The raw emotions of victory and defeat, the uncertainty of what the future holds — those are what keep Dorrance addicted to the college game.
"There's nothing you can really say to assuage (the players') pain," he said. "But, you know, this is what I guess the best parts of athletics are all about. I mean, you really get to feel life in moments like that."
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.