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'Our secret weapon': UNC women's soccer reserves propel Tar Heels into NCAA quarterfinals

20231110_Skvoretz_WSOC-NCAA-Tournament-vs-towson-305.jpg
UNC junior forward Bella Sember (18) looks to pass the ball during the first-round NCAA Division I game against Towson on Friday, Nov. 10, 2023, at Dorrance Field. UNC wins 3-1.

North Carolina women’s soccer has a secret weapon.

It’s not Ally Sentnor. The redshirt sophomore forward's talent has been on display all season, punishing anyone who dares give her space. It’s not the defense, either. Opposing offenses have been well aware of it as soon as they cross over midfield.

Instead, it’s the seven or so players that take the field in the last 15 minutes of the first half and the middle 15 minutes of the second half. The reserve unit, or the “game changers” as head coach Anson Dorrance likes to call them — a phrase he said he stole from the national team.

“I think that’s a great description of this particular reserve unit that we have because they do change the game," Dorrance told The Daily Tar Heel on Nov. 18.

In Sunday’s 1-0 win against Texas Tech in the third round of the NCAA tournament, that’s exactly what the reserve unit did: change the game. Each time Dorrance called upon the platoon of players, they changed the game's trajectory. Against a Red Raider squad that hadn’t lost at home all season and hadn’t allowed a goal at home since Aug. 31, four of UNC's seven shots on goal came from reserves — a group Dorrance has previously called the "secret sauce that allows this team to keep winning.”

"There are players strewn throughout that reserve team that can change a game,” Dorrance said.

There was no bigger moment for the game changers than with less than 19 minutes left. North Carolina was knocking on the door with its well-rested reserves in the game. Meanwhile, Texas Tech was growing restless on the offensive end, still yet to record a shot on goal, something would have to change.

The Tar Heels found their answer when sophomore forward Maddie Dahlien’s shot was blocked and found its way to the feet of Sentnor on the right side of the box. Sentnor surveyed her options and found junior midfielder Bella Sember at the top of the box.

Sember juked out her defender and fired a rocket into the right side of the net to put North Carolina in the lead, changing the game just under eight minutes into her second-half shift with a goal Dorrance called "phenomenal."

“Earlier in that game, we were playing pretty well but every shot we hit right at the goalkeeper," Dorrance told The Daily Tar Heel on Nov. 20. "And all of a sudden she finished one with power that was not at the goalkeeper."

On Sunday, the reserves' impact extended to the defensive end as well.

Going into the game, North Carolina hadn’t allowed a shot on goal across three halves of play. Over 90 minutes, that streak was extended to five, when none of Texas Tech's seven shots were on target. 

But it wasn’t the starters who shut down the Red Raiders; it was the reserves. Of the seven shots Texas Tech had, only one was allowed by UNC's reserves.

In the next round against BYU — the No. 2 scoring offense in the NCAA — the reserves will need to be game changers again, according to Dorrance. Not just on the offensive end, but on the defensive end as well.

It was the feeling I had [after Alabama], for this team to continue its run," Dorrance said on Nov. 20. "The reserves have to continue to play the way they’ve been playing."

@thenoahmonroe

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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