The 2019 North Carolina Tar Heels Women’s Soccer team are once again champions of the ACC. One year after losing the ACC title game in a pulsating match against Florida State, the Tar Heels reclaimed their rightful place atop the conference in even more dramatic fashion.
Alessia Russo’s golden goal in the 102nd minute gave Carolina the victory over the #1 and previously undefeated Virginia Cavaliers and brought a ferocious, heart-stopping game to a merciful, triumphant end. There miscues, missed calls, reckless challenges, and some truly spectacular soccer by two teams that left it all out on the field.
Just as they did two days ago against NC State, the Tar Heels struck early, with Maycee Bell (newly named the ACC Freshman of the Year) heading home a cross from Lotte Wubben-Moy in the sixth minute of play. Carolina kept its foot on the gas throughout the opening period, hammering away at the Cavaliers, a team unaccustomed to playing from behind. However, the Tar Heels couldn’t find a way to add onto their lead with another goal. At the 30 minute mark, Anson Dorrance made his signature line change, inserting six players to give the Tar Heels fresh legs. It did nothing to slow the Heels’ momentum, but nor did it break Virginia’s defense. At the half, UNC still led by just a goal, despite an overpowering performance.
The second half began in similar fashion, with UNC creating the vast majority of the chances, but there was a chippier edge, both teams exchanging fouls. Virginia’s Phoebe McClernon was booked for a foul on Emily Fox, a card that was a long time in coming. Dorrance made another wholesale change in the 65th minute, intending to wear the Wahoos out, just as UNC had done so many times throughout the season with its impressive depth.
It was not to be: In the 68th minute, Virginia equalized on a goalie howler. Claudia Dickey, so often UNC’s surehanded keeper (who had a terrific one on one save in the first half) came off her line to punch away a free kick from outside the box. She misjudged it badly, allowing it to sail over her head and carom off Maycee Bell, to fall right to the feet of Diana Ordonez, Virginia’s high-scoring striker. Ordonez drilled it into the unprotected net and the Cavaliers were on terms. The equalizer seemed to energize Virginia, who threatened several times in the next few minutes, but UNC eventually gained control of the game again.
It was a rough afternoon for goalkeepers: Virginia’s veteran keeper Laurel Ivory was knocked out of the game by a brutal head-to-head collision with Brianna Pinto. Sophomore substitute Michaela Moran was inserted and Virginia huddled up as Ivory left the field, urging one another to win the game for their fallen teammate.
The second half ended in agonizing fashion for UNC: They had three corners in the final minutes, one of them bouncing off the crossbar, and the referee missed a clear handball in the box with three minutes to go in the game that would have given UNC a penalty to win it in regulation. All the chances went begging and for the 8th time, the ACC Championship game would go to sudden-death overtime.
Virginia was on the front foot in the first overtime, finding an attacking prowess that had eluded them in much of regulation. They nearly won the match when a deflected Rebecca Jarrett shot bounced off the UNC post (half of Virginia’s players were already beginning to celebrate with the ball still in the air, it was so close to going in). Emily Fox had a fantastic opportunity moments later, making several great moves to draw near goal, but she was taken out by a rough but legal tackle by a Cavalier defender (she was booked for dissent at the end of the first OT).
In the second overtime, Fox lofted a wonderful weighted pass over the top of the Virginia defense, that sprang Russo on the break. The English-born junior had to watch last year’s title game from the sideline with a broken leg. This year, fully healthy, she made no mistake, evading her marker and lashing a perfect strike across goal and past Moran to win the title for UNC. It was her third goal in two games and the biggest (thus far) in her decorated Tar Heel career.
Russo, Fox, Bell, Wubben-Moy, and Dickey were all named to the ACC All-Tournament team and Russo, just as she was two years ago as a freshman, was named Tournament MVP. The Tar Heels, now champions of the ACC in both regular season and tournament, will turn their attention to the College Cup, the last piece of unfinished business from last year. They will begin the NCAA Tournament as the #1 team in the nation.