CHAPEL HILL, N.C. - No. 1 North Carolina scored two goals late in the first half and rode a strong defensive performance to a 4-2 victory over third-seeded Maryland to win the 2012 ACC Field Hockey Championship.
"Winning an ACC championship in any sport is not easy to do," said North Carolina coach Karen Shelton, whose team was the top seed in the tournament and the defending ACC champion. "Maryland played a very good game against us and it took everything that we had to handle them. I'm really proud of our back four, and I felt they had some key intercepts there that were momentum-changers in the game."
With the win, North Carolina (20-1, 5-0) clinched its 18th conference title, all under Shelton, and secured the league's automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament. The Tar Heels successfully defended the ACC title for the first time since 1997, also the last time they won the championship on their home field. They improved their tournament record to 40-12 overall.
UNC now awaits the announcement of the 2012 NCAA Tournament bracket on Tuesday evening. The tournament opens Saturday, with first-round games at campus sites.
Maryland (16-5, 3-2) earned the first penalty corners of the game midway through the first period but was not able to cash in on three consecutive attempts. Terrapin goaltender Natalie Hunter then made a diving save to stop UNC senior Kelsey Kolojejchick on a Tar Heel fast break a minute later to keep the game scoreless.
North Carolina got on the board first with a goal by sophomore Loren Shealy in the 29th minute. Sophomore Charlotte Craddock drove down the right side and fired a cross through the circle, and Shealy collected the rebound off a Maryland player and shot to give the Tar Heels the lead for good.
"I was just at the right place at the right time on the far post," Shealy said. "It is something we have worked on all season. It was good to get on the board and push the momentum in our favor."
Kolojejchick scored her 14th goal of the season with 18 seconds remaining in the first period. The senior hit the post with her first shot, grabbed her own rebound, and did not miss on the second opportunity.
The Terrapins held the nation's top offense to just two shots through the first 25 minutes of the game, but the Tar Heels found success through their fast break offense and had eight shots in the last ten minutes. Maryland, after finding chances early in the period, did not register a shot over 29 minutes spanning the end of the first half through the start of the second period.
Freshman Sarah Sprink got the Terrapins on the board with a goal off a penalty corner in the 50th minute. Ali McEvoy assisted on the play.
Craddock helped push the lead back to two goals at 3-1 in the 58th minute. The sophomore led the Tar Heel counterattack down the right side and launched ball from outside the circle that deflected off of Maryland defender Harriet Tibble into the net for an own goal.
The Terrapins pulled their keeper with just over five minutes to play and then managed to again draw within a goal. With 95 seconds to play, Jill Witmer dove to deflect a ball from Katie Gerzabek past UNC goalkeeper Sassi Ammer.
With the UM keeper still out, Shealy scored into the open goal with 40 seconds remaining for the final score.
North Carolina outshot Maryland 17-12 and each team earned seven corners.
Ammer finished with four saves, and Hunter made eight saves in the loss.
UNC senior Caitlin Van Sickle, the team captain, was named Tournament Most Valuable Player for her defensive performance in the two Tar Heel victories.
"It's an honor [to be named MVP], but winning the championship is more important," said Van Sickle. "I wouldn't have been able to do the things I do without any of my teammates out there. The championship is a lot more important than individual awards."
Van Sickle was joined on the all-tournament team by Kolojejchick, Shealy and freshman Emily Wold.
No. 1 UNC 4, No. 7 Maryland 2
Shots: UNC 17 (10/7); UM 12 (4/8)
Penalty corners: UNC 7 (3/4); UM 7 (3/4)
Saves: UNC 4 (Sassi Ammer, 70:00, 4 saves, 2 goals allowed); UM (Natalie Hunter, 64:49, 8 saves, 3 goals allowed; Team, 5:11, 0 saves, 1 goal allowed)
Records: UNC 20-1, UM 16-5