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Defense anchors UNC women's soccer's victory over Alabama in second round of NCAA Tournament

UNC redshirt senior defender Maycee Bell (25) fights for the ball during the first-round NCAA Division I game against Towson on Friday, Nov. 10, 2023, at Dorrance Field. UNC wins 3-1.

After a 1-1 draw against Alabama earlier this season, Maycee Bell hoped North Carolina would get another chance to play the Crimson Tide. The redshirt senior defender's wish came true when the two teams matched up in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

“I don’t think we played to the best of our abilities when we played them the first time,” Bell said following UNC’s first-round win against Towson on Nov. 10. “This gives us an opportunity to just go out there and show them who we are as a team.”

Not only did they play to the best of their abilities, but Bell and the Tar Heels shut down Alabama with a strong defensive showing on Friday. Across 90 minutes, UNC limited the Crimson Tide to four shots, including none on goal — both season-lows for Alabama. Behind redshirt sophomore forward Ally Sentnor's lone goal, UNC won, 1-0.

The defensive stand isn't anything new for the Tar Heels. They've held opponents to four shots or fewer nine times this season, anchored by redshirt sophomore defender Emerson Elgin, along with second-team All-ACC selects in first-year defender Savy King and Bell.

Head coach Anson Dorrance gave the three defenders credit in an interview with The Daily Tar Heel on Saturday.

“Most teams are comfortable because they have four players back there," Dorrance said. "We take a bit of a risk in order to try and dominate the game more by playing with only three in the back. And all three of those kids, plus [sophomore defender Tessa Dellarose] coming off the bench, have all had wonderful seasons for us."

So far in the NCAA tournament, the defense has continued its sturdy form. In North Carolina’s first-round win over Towson, the Tar Heels didn't allow any second-half shots after surrendering nine in the first frame. Against the Crimson Tide, Alabama had two chances per half to get the ball on goal, but neither did so much as nick the crossbar. Because of this, redshirt sophomore goalkeeper Emmie Allen hasn’t been forced to make a save in UNC's last three halves of play.

In addition to the backline, UNC's midfield has helped shoulder defensive duties. Spearheaded by second-team All-ACC senior midfielder Sam Meza and senior Talia DellaPeruta, the Tar Heels' midfield unit often halts opponents' rhythms before any dangerous scoring opportunities can even form.

“Talia has been good as our leader in the six and she’s done very, very well,” Dorrance said. “Sam Meza, for all of her brilliant and creative attacking skills, is also an absolutely fabulous defender.”

Just a week ago, DellaPeruta wasn’t in the starting lineup.

After the loss to Pittsburgh in the first round of the ACC tournament, Dorrance had a conversation with DellaPeruta, where he questioned whether she was fit enough to be in the starting lineup and asked her to instead lead the reserve unit. She didn’t grovel, but instead just nodded her head and got to work.

Following a strong performance in the first half against Towson, DellaPeruta rejoined the starting 11 against Alabama.

“I had no choice but to shift her into the starting unit,” Dorrance said. “And now she’s leading my starting unit and doing it very well. That’s to her credit. She is a fantastic leader and I love what she’s done.”

With the offense often struggling to score more than one goal this season, the defense has stepped up to allow the Tar Heels to stay in games, helping them to advance to the third round.

Now, the Tar Heels have to face an even stronger defense in a third-round matchup against a Texas Tech team that is tied for third in the country in goals allowed per game. UNC will face off on the Red Raiders' home field on Sunday at 2 p.m.

“This is gonna be a challenge," Dorrance said. "And I'm very excited and looking forward to it."


@dthsports |

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