HOOVER, Ala. — A soccer game can sometimes be decided by a single flash of brilliance.
And that, as it turned out, was the only way No. 1-seed North Carolina would beat the unseeded Charlotte 49ers 1-0 in Sunday's College Cup NCAA men's soccer championship game at Regions Park.
Despite being outshot by nearly a 2-1 margin and facing a withering 49ers attack over the final 10 minutes, the Tar Heels (21-2-3) won a national title with a splendid long-range goal from midfielder Ben Speas midway through the second half.
"Ben had a moment of inspiration, and it was incredible," said first-year Tar Heels coach Carlos Somoano, the second coach in NCAA soccer history to win a national title in his first season.
It was the Tar Heels' second men's soccer championship (the other coming in 2001) and the school's 38th overall national team title. It was also the first time any Charlotte team had played for a national championship.
Somoano wouldn't get an argument from 49ers coach Jeremy Gunn about the quality of Speas' goal.
"We couldn't have asked for anything more in the game," said Gunn, whose team finished 16-5-4 and outshot the Tar Heels 19-10.
"The simple fact is they scored an incredible goal to win the game and we did everything but that."
Speas, a transfer from Akron who also played on the Zips' 2010 national championship team, hit a left-footed shot from 25 yards out that flew over the outstretched arms of Charlotte goalkeeper Klay Davis in the game's 65th minute.
The goal immediately changed the course of a game that was played in front of a crowd of 8,777 composed largely of raucous 49ers fans. And Charlotte had been in this position before: The 49ers trailed Connecticut late in their quarterfinal game last week, but rallied to advance in a penalty kick shootout.
As it did against the Huskies, Charlotte threw everything at the Tar Heels in the game's late stages. In one breathless 40-second flurry, the 49ers took five shots. T.J. Beaulieu and Robby Thomas both hit the crossbar with headers.
Freshman forward Giuseppe Gentile had two shots go just high.
"The only thing going through my mind at that point was don't let one in," said Tar Heels goalie Scott Goodwin. "It was obviously pretty hectic."
The game was not without controversy.
Early in the second half, Charlotte midfielder Donnie Smith (Charlotte Catholic High), broke free into the Tar Heels penalty box. North Carolina midfielder Kirk Urso, trying to tackle Smith, made contact and Smith went to the turf.
If referee Michael Kennedy were to have called a foul, it would have resulted in a penalty kick. But as the Charlotte bench howled for a penalty, Kennedy merely gave a "play on" signal with his arms.
"I thought I was in good position," said Urso. "I was running with him and I think the referee made the right decision. As (an attacking player), it's may be smart to go down there. But I thought I made the right play."
This time, though, Gunn couldn't agree.
"In my own humble opinion, it's a penalty," said Gunn, an Englishman. "But those decisions even out over the season.
"There is a chance that while watching (the replay), the cup of tea might go flying across the room."
The 49ers had jumped all over the Tar Heels from the opening whistle, disrupting North Carolina's passing and winning tackle after tackle.
"Charlotte was exceptional tonight," said Somoano. "They came out so aggressive and played so hard, we didn't have the legs to play the game we wanted to. It's the first time all season we weren't able to dominate the ball."
Said Gunn: "We kept an incredible attacking team quiet."
Quiet, for all but one instant. And that was all the Tar Heels would need.