In a game of 90 minutes, 16 seconds may seem trivial. But for the UNC women’s soccer team, 16 seconds was the reason they didn't walk off the pitch in Monday's College Cup final as national champions.
In their final scoring opportunity of the contest, the Bruins lobbed a corner into the box. Reilyn Turner tied the game in the waning seconds and the dejected Tar Heels could not recover in the second extra time period.
As the game clock reached zero, the Tar Heels watched on in devastation as UCLA threw on its national championship t-shirts and hoisted the trophy.
“Just to be able to taste that national championship with sixteen seconds left — it’s going to be something that is hard to come back from,” said junior midfielder Avery Patterson, who scored both of UNC's goals and conceded the game-tying corner kick.
The stunning 3-2 loss put a cap on a sometimes shaky season for UNC. After struggling on offense in the ACC Tournament, the Tar Heels appeared to find their stride in the final six games of the season.
The game was reminiscent of the first contest between the two squads on Sept. 4. The Tar Heels dominated possession in both games but were unable to hold onto early leads. UNC could not adapt to UCLA’s aggressive attack in the second half.
For a team that lost All-Americans Maycee Bell and Sam Meza to injuries, it could not have foreseen reaching the national championship game. Head coach Anson Dorrance credited associate head coach Damon Nahas for the tactical decisions that led to the team’s successes.
“We lost our two best players, we’re in the College Cup, we’ve won the first semifinal game — I’m playing with house money,” Dorrance said. “This team overachieved in every respect.”
In the grand picture of UNC women’s soccer, though, any season that does not end in a national championship feels like a let down. The Tar Heels have now lost three championship games in the last five years and have not reached the sport’s summit since 2012.
Following the game, UCLA's first-year head coach Margueritte Aozasa recognized UNC’s successes over the years.
“That’s a program that I think anybody involved in college soccer has always looked up to," she joked. "If I do this for another 25 years with this record, I might catch Anson in terms of his record."
Throughout the long and arduous season, the UNC players developed a powerful bond. Patterson said they will lean on each other through the heartbreak — she and Dorrance said they were especially heartbroken for the seniors.
Dorrance writes letters to his seniors and reads them out in front of the team at the end of each season. He read six of those letters before the semifinal game on Friday, and he read the remaining six before Monday night's contest.
"It's our tradition, and it's a tradition of connection," Dorrance said. "And our incentive in the NCAA Tournament is to send every senior out a winner. And we didn't succeed, but I think we gave it a good shot."
Now, comes the hardest part — building the team back up.
Dorrance is excited about the future of the program and said he will look back on this season with pride. Despite injuries, offensive struggles, and late-game collapses, the Tar Heels reached the pinnacle of the sport. The team was a corner kick away from lifting the prized trophy.
“The way they will look at this is 16 seconds to glory,” Dorrance said. “You know what — that is an achievement.”
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