Defense wins championships, and on Sunday afternoon, the Indiana Hoosiers will try and ride their record-setting defense to their ninth National Championship. For the North Carolina Tar Heels, their season ends right where it did last year—one game short of the Final.
In a matchup billed as a clash between UNC's brilliant attack against Indiana's historic defense, the Tar Heels were frustrated for 90 minutes by a disciplined, focused, and impenetrable Hoosier squad. Carolina's superstar offensive players never found a rhythm, despite obvious effort and desire to take control of the match. Simply put, Indiana took Carolina out of its game, and the Heels couldn't wrestle it back.
The match started well enough for Carlos Somoano's team: Carolina was the aggressor in the opening minutes, with their front three pressing high and forcing the action into the Indiana half. For about twenty minutes, the run of play favored the Heels. 50-50 balls went Carolina's way, Indiana few probes into UNC territory were quickly snuffed out, and Carolina controlled possession. Unlike most games this season, no chances came. Indiana's all-world backline surrendered no opportunities. And the Tar Heels' good start was all for naught.
Carolina's best chance of the first half came when a quick interception freed up Alan Winn on the left wing. Winn beat his defender and had a free run into the box before Indiana defenders met him. Winn chose to wait for support and build a play, pulling out of his run. The support from Cam Lindley and Jelani Pieters arrived late, and with it came Indiana's recovering defense. Carolina turned the ball back over to Indiana and the Heel's best opportunity was squandered without even a shot being taken.
The first 45 minutes ended scoreless, and in the halftime interview a visibly frustrated Carlos Somoano expressed his desire to see the Heels be more aggressive and take more chances. The opposite happened: Indiana came storming out of the locker room, pinning the Heels back and taking a much more offensive approach. In the 50th minute, the Hoosiers won their first corner of the game. Trevor Swartz put in a good ball that sailed over much of the cluster of players before landing at the feet of Andrew Gutman on the far post. Gutman tapped it in and Indiana had the lead.
The last 40 minutes proved to be nothing but frustration for UNC. Indiana's defense didn't allow any link-up play on offense and the Carolina attackers were left to create chances through isolation hero-ball. Zach Wright, playing in his last game as a Tar Heel, put in a strong effort, trying over and over again to run at the Indiana defense and get around the back. But his teammates were constantly walled-off and his efforts proved fruitless. His senior striker partner Alan Winn tried at times to do the same, but Indiana consistently forced him off the ball.
Carolina's last, and probably best chance came in the final minute when Zach Wright stormed up the right flank one last time, frantically trying to extend his Tar Heel career. He threaded a ball through several Indiana defenders to the foot of freshman Lucas Del Rosario about ten yards out. But Del Rosario, who didn't even see the ball until the last instant, couldn't keep it on frame and the Heels' last gasp effort went wide.
Carolina's inexperienced defense gave a fine account of themselves. Outside of Gutman's set piece goal, the Heels dealt very well with Indiana's counterattacks. On many occasions, the Tar Heel defenders won back the ball from Indiana attackers and tried to give their attacking teammates as many opportunities as possible, to no avail. Goalkeeper James Pyle, sidelined by injury most of the year, made a couple of good saves to keep the game within reach.
It was, however, a very disappointing night for stars Cam Lindley and Jelani Pieters. Lindley, recently named an All-American, was largely a non-factor in the game and spent a lot of time without the ball in a game in which the Tar Heels desperately needed their top playmaker. Pieters had one of his worst outings the season. The sophomore made big strides this year and in the first month of the season looked like Carolina's best player.
On Friday, however, he was completely ineffective and seemed to lack confidence on the ball, frequently passing it away the instant he got it. While Wright and Winn tried to use their speed to attack the IU defense and create chances, Pieters made no such effort. For two sophomores who had played beyond their years all season, they very much had the look of underclassmen against the Hoosiers.
And so, another great season for the Tar Heels ends in the Semifinals. As frustrating as Friday's loss was (as well as a missed chance for a rematch with Stanford), this has been a very impressive and enjoyable season for a relatively young Carolina squad. A lot of freshman and sophomores saw significant playing time this year, and it's safe to say that this UNC team has even brighter days ahead of it. As for seniors, like Winn, Wright, and David October, back-to-back Finals Fours and three straight ACC Coastal Championships are a lot be proud of.