Maybe it was those last two ACC regular season games. Maybe it was the eight years without an ACC title. Maybe it was having to hear about their archival's 19-game winning streak. Whatever the reason, Anson Dorrance's North Carolina Tar Heels are back at their rightful place atop the ACC, after a hard fought 1-0 victory over Duke in Charleston, South Carolina. And Duke's historic 19-game win streak is bookended by a pair of losses to their rivals.
Zoe Redei scored the winner less than one minute into the 2nd half of play. A deflected shot in the box fell to Redei, who blasted it into the top of the net. Freshman phenom Alessia Russo got credit for the assist. It was a rare chance in a very tightly contested game, but it was all the Tar Heels needed to win.
This was the 2nd goal of the tournament and 2nd all season for Redei, who has been recovering from injury since midway through last season. A promising freshman campaign had been derailed by ankle surgery but Redei, who Dorrance had described as his best striker before the injury, is healthy and playing at the top of her game.
It came not a moment too soon. A pair of ties in their final two home games had cost the Tar Heels a shot at sharing the ACC Regular Season crown with the Blue Devils, who finished conference play 10-0-0. This had to sting, particularly since the Tar Heels had defeated Duke in the season opener, which was not an official ACC Game. Had it been, the Tar Heels would be both regular season AND tourney champs. But the Heels are at their best again, and cannot wait for the start of the NCAA tournament.
The title game itself was evenly played. The Heels outshot the Blue Devils 11-10 and had a 3-0 edge in corner kicks. Samantha Leshnak was called on to make just two saves for the entire game, while Duke goalie Emily Proctor was challenged five times, saving all but Redei's rebound. This was Leshnak's 11th shutout of the season.
Five Tar Heels were named to the All-Tournament team: Defender Julia Ashley, Midfielders Joanna Boyles, Dorian Bailey, and Abby Elinsky, and Forward Alessia Russo. Russo, who had the game-winning goal (an absolute rocket) against NC State in the semifinal in addition to her title game assist, was named Tournament MVP.
The Tar Heels have their defense to thank for their ACC title. Carolina conceded just one goal in 270 minutes of play, and just six shots on goal in the entire tournament. A suffocating midfield and a steady backline have repeatedly shut down opiposing offenses. If that remains true in the NCAA tournament, the Heels should be looking at a return to the College Cup.
The NCAA Tournament begins on Saturday, November 11th. Seeding and matchups will be announced Monday, November 6th.