SAN DIEGO, CALIF. - The North Carolina women's soccer program claimed its 22nd national championship, and perhaps the most improbable of those 22, with a convincing 4-1 victory over sixth-ranked Penn State before a crowd of 6,930 fans at Torero Stadium on the campus of the University of San Diego Sunday afternoon in the 2012 NCAA Women's College Cup championship match.
Coach Anson Dorrance has now led his team to 21 NCAA crowns and one AIAW (pre-NCAA) title in the 34-year history of the program. Sunday's convincing triumph over Big 10 Conference champion Penn State was the latest chapter in the book Dorrance and his players have written over the past three decades.
UNC was led in the championship game by tournament Most Outstanding Offensive Player Kealia Ohai, who scored in the opening minute of the game, and Most Outstanding Defensive Player Satara Murray, who assisted on Ohai's goal and then scored one of her own to give the Tar Heels separation at 3-1 in the second half. Murray's remarkable accomplishment was all the more astounding for the fact she had never recorded a goal or an assist in any game heading into Sunday while starting for two years on defense. Toss in a game-winning goal in the opening minute of the second half from freshman defender Hanna Gardner and big-time senior performances from Amber Brooks, Alyssa Rich, Adelaide Gay and Ranee Premji and it was a fitting end to the Tar Heel season which had many ups and downs.
In addition to Murray and Ohai, the All-Tournament Team included senior midfielder Amber Brooks, junior midfielder Crystal Dunn and senior goalkeeper Adelaide Gay. Penn State, playing in its first NCAA final in its history, was represented by Maddy Evans, Maya Hayes, Christine Nairn and Taylor Schram while NCAA semifinalists Stanford and Florida State had Emily Oliver and Tiffany McCarty, respectively, on the team.
In the national final, Ohai picked up right where she left off in Friday's NCAA semifinal game when she scored a golden goal in the 105th minute to lift the Tar Heels past top-ranked Stanford 1-0. Just 1:11 into the title game, she scored her team-leading ninth goal of the campaign. Satara Murray floated a long ball over the back line of the Penn State defense, Ohai beat her defenders and ran on to the ball and buried a shot from 18 yards out into the upper right corner.
Penn State, which finished 21-4-2, was resilient; however, they wasted a couple of great scoring opportunities early. The Nittany Lions broke through for the tying strike in the 19th minute. Christine Nairn had time and space to feed a ball to Taylor Schram on the left wing and the PSU forward shot over Tar Heel goalie Addy Gay to finish into the far corner at 18:24.
Dorrance immediately switched from Carolina's usual 3-4-3 formation to a 4-2-3-1 and the tactical switch proved crucial to UNC's eventual success. After PSU got three dangerous shots early, the Tar Heels limited the Lions to one shot in the final 26 minutes of the half, a strike from 40 yards by Nairn in the 37th minute that Gay knocked down. Meanwhile, UNC's best scoring opportunity of the remainder of the half came off the foot of Alyssa Rich in the 34th minute as she went far post with a laser from the 18-yard line that Penn State goalie Erin McNulty was able to knock away.
Carolina started the second half in the 4-2-3-1 and that shape did not allow another Penn State shot until the 70:45 mark, giving the Lions just one shot between the 19th minute of the game and the 71st minute. Meanwhile, UNC struck twice off of corner kicks to claim a 3-1 lead.
That Carolina would score twice off corners was ironic, as the team had tallied only three goals off 148 corner kicks coming into the game. The eventual game-winning goal was set up by Ohai as she made a run past the defense on the right side, forcing the corner less than 20 seconds into the period. Freshman international Katie Bowen then placed her kick perfectly to the six-yard line where fellow freshman Hanna Gardner skied to drive it emphatically into the back of the twine. The goal was her second of the year and came just 48 seconds into the second stanza.
Carolina continued to pressure the Penn State goal mouth and earned another corner kick in the 64th minute. Bowen again was accurate with her placement. Gardner's initial shot was knocked down by McNulty as was Rich's follow-up shot. But McNulty could not stop the third shot as Murray buried the ball into the back of the netting for a 3-1 lead at 63:20. It was Murray's first goal of her career after two seasons as the starting right back.
The Tar Heels ended any doubt as to the outcome in the 75th minute as senior Ranee Premji came off the bench to score her fourth goal of the season at 74:18. Dunn set up the goal with a run to the end line on the left wing after receiving a flick on from Summer Green, as Dunn centered the ball to the Canadian international Premji for a one-touch putaway.
Carolina ended the game with a 24-12 edge in shots (9-4 first half, 15-8 second half). The Tar Heels had an edge in corner kicks as well 8-4. Twenty-one of the 22 players dressed in the game for the Tar Heels saw action. Adelaide Gay, the senior walk-on and transfer from Yale, who came back for a fifth year and started 40 of the last 41 games of her career for Carolina, played 85:33 and made two saves while allowing one goal. Senior Hannah Daly came off the bench to end her career in style by playing the final 4:27, making one save. McNulty for Penn State had a very solid game despite giving up four goals. The Florida State transfer had seven saves and none of them were routine.
Carolina finished its season 15-5-3 overall after being 5-3-2 on September 27 coming off a 1-0 loss to then top-ranked Florida State. But after that loss to the Seminoles, Carolina went 10-2-1 the rest of the way. After a 1-0 loss to Virginia in the ACC Tournament quarterfinals on October 28, a game in which the Cavaliers dominated the pitch, the Tar Heels had 13 days to get ready for the NCAA Tournament and it showed their preparation was adroit as they went on a six-game run to win the title. No team in history had survived three NCAA Tournament overtime games and won the crown and Carolina did just that against Baylor in the third round, BYU in the quarterfinals and Stanford in the semifinals.
The five losses by UNC are the most ever for an NCAA champion. UNC had gone 21-3 in 2000 and 23-3-1 in 2009 in winning NCAA crowns and Southern California was 23-3 when it won the championship in 2007.
Carolina three-goal margin of victory was the largest in an NCAA final since 2005 when Portland blanked UCLA 4-0 and the largest separation for Carolina in an NCAA title game since 2003 when the Heels beat Connecticut 6-0.
Many Carolina players - Kealia Ohai, Cyrstal Dunn, Katie Bowen, Bryane Heaberlin and Summer Green - missed large chunks of the season with national team commitments and starting center back Caitlin Ball also missed 10 games with an injury. Add to that the fact two-year starting left back Megan Brigman was lost for the season four minutes into the season opener at Portland and Dorrance alluded to the reality that it took this Carolina team a while to find its chemistry.The Carolina team will return to Chapel Hill Monday morning as four different groups are schedule on red-eye flights from San Diego later this evening with bus arrivals at Finley Field between 9:45 and 11:45. A national championship celebration is planned for Thursday at 5:30 p.m. at Carmichael Arena. The general public and university community is invited (see related release on GoHeels.com).