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'Moments of mental lapse': UNC field hockey concedes sudden-death goal against Liberty

UNC midfielder Jasmina Smolenaars (22) defends the Tar Heels' during the field hockey game against Liberty on Oct. 8, 2023. UNC lost to Liberty 1-2.

Down to six players and a goalie for the second round of overtime, sophomore forward Ryleigh Heck, encircled by four Liberty defenders, had the ball tapped away at the top of the circle. Heck, and many of her teammates, held up their arms, asking for a foul for an illegal back stick hit. 

But, the Flames didnโ€™t flinch, and play didnโ€™t stop. 

Liberty midfielder Martu Cian charged into UNC territory, dribbled around five Tar Heels and launched the ball into the left corner of the cage. 

The Flames won, 2-1. Game over.

โ€œWe can never have a defensive break like that [again],โ€ senior midfielder Katie Dixon said. โ€œWe canโ€™t let those moments of mental lapse get to us.โ€

But, while it took less than 20 seconds for the No. 1 North Carolina field hockey team to lose control of Sundayโ€™s overtime against No. 10 Liberty, the Tar Heels also had plenty of opportunities to win. North Carolina drew a season-high 12 penalty corners throughout Sundayโ€™s match but failed to capitalize on a single one.

When UNC's defense collapsed in the 73rd minute, and Liberty's Cian punched the game-winning shot into the goal, Dixon said the team was emotional. 

While assistant coach Tim Broenink stood in the middle of the field discussing the alleged missed call with the officials, Heck walked towards the bench with her stick over her shoulders and tears in her eyes. A frustrated Erin Matson stepped away from her assistant with her arms crossed.

But, the head coach's frustration wasn't solely focused on a late-game miscue or a potential missed call.

โ€œWe gotta put it away early,โ€ the head coach said. โ€œWeโ€™re given enough chances. We need to make it so that we donโ€™t put ourselves in this situation.โ€

Of UNC's 12 penalty corner chances, five came in overtime. But the Liberty defense, which ranks first in the nation in save percentage, kept the Tar Heels from converting.

Just one minute before the eventual game-deciding goal, UNC had one last corner opportunity, but Jasmina Smolenaars' shot was deflected over the net.

In spite of all the opportunities it created โ€” North Carolina had seven more penalty corner chances than Liberty โ€” all the pieces of UNC's penalty corner offense lacked cohesion. The inserts onto the field from the backline were slightly askew, the ball rolled too far and hits were off target, according to Matson.

โ€œWe were trying to figure out ways around their defense,โ€ senior back Romea Riccardo said. โ€œCredit to [Liberty], they did a great job defending our corners on attack, but thatโ€™s just another area where we know we definitely need to grow. Come Tuesdayโ€™s practice, Iโ€™m sure weโ€™ll do overtime penalty corners.โ€ 

The Tar Heels are now 1-2 in overtime this season, and Sunday was the program's fourth home loss since Karen Shelton Stadium's construction in 2018.

After the defeat, Matson highlighted the team's "next-game mentality" and said this loss "lights the fire" for UNC. But, considering the match's abrupt ending and the missed opportunities, it's safe to say this loss will hurt a little more for now.

โ€œWe obviously are not happy,โ€ Matson said. โ€œWe will just continue to grow, continue to set new goals, continue to improve, continue to build and most importantly, stick together.โ€


@dthsports |

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