The North Carolina Tar Heels will play for a 23rd National Championship on Sunday night in San Jose, CA after defeating a feisty Washington State Cougars squad in the national semifinal Friday night. This is what Carolina wanted, what they played for all year, what they have been starving for ever since the shattering title game loss for Florida State in Cary last season.
Playing on a wet and slippery Bay Area field, and doing so without star midfielder and Hermann Trophy finalist Emily Fox, UNC fell behind early when the Cougars scored in the 7th minute of play through their goal-scoring star Morgan Weaver, who finished the season with 15 goals. The Cougars’ strategy of pressing high and attacking on the counter, largely leaving the middle of the park to UNC’s talented midfield, was very effective and they gained a number of corners early on, threatening to grow their lead.
UNC evened the odds in the 24h minute when Taylor Otto lofted a gorgeous ball over the defense to her fellow co-captain Alessia Russo, who collected the ball and chipped it in over WSU keeper Ella Dedrick to make it 1-1. Nonetheless, the Cougars kept an edge in the game, and at the 30 minute mark they had three corners to UNC’s none, a rare sight for any Anson Dorrance team. Dorrance countered by bringing in his signature platoon of reserves, whose fresh energy swung momentum to the Heels.
In the 38th minute, defender Julia Dorsey had a great run from the back and sprung Ru Mucherera on the left flank. Ru, always a threat when she’s got a full head of steam, moved the ball upfield and fired in a terrific ball that freshman Alexis Strickland headed home at the far post to put UNC ahead. WSU threatened to strike back in the 40th minute with a solid chance but Claudia Dickey, who played an exceptional game, kept it out.
In the second half, with the regular starters back in, Russo had an opportunity to seal the game when she found herself one on one with Dedrick in the 50th minute. But her chance was saved and UNC was unable to open up any breathing room. The game was a sloppy affair as the wet field became more and more chewed up by game action. Both teams struggled to possess the ball consistently and neither could gain any real control over the flow of play.
In the 63rd minute, Dorrance returned to his familiar bag of tricks, returning his offensive subs to the field to try and force WSU back. It worked for a few minutes, with the Heels pushing play into the Cougar half, but without the finishing ability of players like Russo, Isabel Cox, or Brianna Pinto on the field, UNC couldn’t quite find the killer ball. As play wore on, UNC struggled to string passes together and Washington State began to gain control over the ball and the bulk of the chances.
Defender Maycee Bell, newly named ACC Freshman of the Year, had several terrific plays to break of big chances for the Cougar offense, saving shots by both headed clearance and by slide tackle. She briefly had to leave the game in the 78th minute due to a head injury, but returned to help see the game out. UNC reinserted its starters and WSU had its best chance of the game to equalize moments later: Morgan Weaver had a breakaway opportunity down the left line and a wide open teammate in support on the right. But her shot went wide right of the post and was too far out in front of her support for a tap-in. UNC was lucky to avoid surrendering a tying goal.
The last ten minutes were more businesslike, with UNC’s defense smothering out any chances and their offensive starters running the ball up the wings to the corner to kill off the game clock. Washington State didn’t see any meaningful chance in the closing minutes before the final whistle.
UNC now has an opportunity to finish off what they have been calling a Redemption Tour, just as Men’s Basketball did in the 2017 season. With an undefeated ACC Regular Season and an ACC Tournament title already in hand, they have an opportunity to not only find redemption, but also cement their place as one of the North Carolina program’s greatest teams. Which, all things considered, is saying an awful lot.