Santa Clara turned all that youth that had previously allowed North Carolina women’s soccer team to wear down opponents into a liability during a 30-second stretch that ultimately decided Thursday’s College Cup semifinal game at Sahlen’s Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park.
The Tar Heels were a little too euphoric, a little too unfocused after a second half score. They eased up just enough for the Broncos to take advantage in a 3-1 win that advanced them to face No. 1 Florida State in the national title game on Monday. The Seminoles defeated Virginia on penalty kicks.
Carolina (18-2) ended its season in the College Cup for a third straight season. The Heels lost in the title match to Stanford in 2019 and the Seminoles in 2018. The loss also extended the longest championship drought in program history to eight seasons.
UNC coach Anson Dorrance said his team overachieved a bit just to reach the College Cup. Three players turned pro in August while the COVID-19 pandemic was still casting doubts on if there would even be a season played. UNC lost another two players to the NWSL draft in January and another potential starter to lacrosse when the NCAA moved the fall championships to spring.
The Heels started four freshmen and played a total of seven as a result and did not have a senior in its rotation.
“When they look at the game, with the exception of two or three glitchy moments, they’re gonna say, ‘You know what? We played okay,’” Dorrance said. “They’re gonna look back on this game eventually and be very proud of it, despite the loss.”
Carolina midfielder Brianna Pinto’s 14th goal of the season tied the game at 1 at the 50:18 mark. Pinto received a well-placed ball from Sam Meza and beat her defender. As Santa Clara’s goalkeeper Marlee Nicolos charged forward, Pinto kicked into the right corner of the net for a score.
The Heels had missed opportunities or were stopped on their previous eight shots on goal, which is why Pinto’s score led to a such a celebration from their sidelines.
“We were sort of overjoyed that we were back in the game to tie it,” Dorrance said. “Our young kids let down and the more experienced Santa Clara sharks up front lit up because they knew the one wasn’t going to make all the difference. Our lack of experience showed.”
Santa Clara has beaten Carolina in four of their last five meetings in the NCAA Tournament. Broncos coach Jerry Smith attributes at least part of that success to their approach.
“Most coaches try to defend Carolina,” Smith said. “We try to outscore Carolina.”
Smith told his team at halftime that their 1-0 lead would not hold and they should expect Carolina to score in the second half, but stay calm and stick to the game plan. Santa Clara’s response to being tied swung the momentum its way for good.
The Broncos were back in front of goal keeper Claudia Dickey challenging the Heels. UNC’s Avery Patterson had fallen down trying to stop Santa Clara’s Izzy D’Aquila from getting a shot off. D’Aquila’s kick was deflected by Dickey, but Kelsey Turnbow slid to make contact for a follow shot before UNC’s Talia Dellaperuta could clear the ball.
Turnbow’s goal gave Santa Clara a 2-1 lead just 30 seconds after Pinto tied the game.
“That,” Dorrance said, “was extraordinarily deflating.”
That, was the game.
Carolina entered the College Cup having posted seven straight shut outs. The last time they allowed multiple goals was against FSU in the ACC championship game, which was Heels’ only other loss of the season.
It not only put Santa Clara up a score, it was an emotional blow to a young team that fed off emotions.
“For us to score so quickly after they scored was a huge moment in the game, there’s no doubt about that,” Smith said. “Had we not scored right away, and they got momentum going, I’d be sitting here on the losing side having lost 3-1. But for us to answer so quickly, I think it took air out of their out of their sails.”
Carolina has rarely played down two goals in program history – just 28 times in its previous 998 games -- but it happened again on Thursday. And it happened again off a goal scored on a second effort.
Dickey came up high in the box to stop Santa Clara midfielder Skylar Smith’s initial shot attempt. As the ball ricocheted free, Patterson rotated to defend the open net but could not stop Smith’s second shot from putting the Broncos up two goals in the 60th minute.
Santa Clara took a 1-0 lead at the 20th minute when D’Aquila scored on a breakaway only after UNC freshman defender Abby Allen whiffed attempting to clear the ball.
The game was the last for Pinto, who is a finalist for the the MAC Hermann Trophy, the highest individual honor on women’s soccer. She was the third pick of the NWSL draft in January. UNC’s Emily Fox, the No. 1 overall pick, and Taylor Otto, who was picked 11, both opted to begin their pro careers. Pinto continued playing in the spring for the sole purpose of winning the national championship after Carolina lost in the title game the past two seasons.
“Although it came to an end, I’m really, really proud of all the effort that went into it, and I’m, I’m so sad that I’m leaving,” Pinto said. “I wanted to win the next natty, but it didn’t happen. It wasn’t written for me. But I just hope and pray that my team can get it done in the fall and I know that they have all the pieces that they need to do it.”