SAN DIEGO — Two seasons without a national championship might not seem like a long drought for any other team, but for North Carolinas womens soccer team, it dragged on like an eternity.
The weight of unrivaled expectations was lifted, and the wait of more than 1,000 days since the Tar Heels last NCAA title came to an end Sunday. Employing a quick-strike offense that seemed to answer every challenge and a defense that switched gears just in the nick of time, North Carolina secured a 4-1 victory over Penn State at University of San Diegos Torero Stadium and captured their first national championship since Dec. 6, 2009.
It was the Tar Heels 22nd national title and its 21st NCAA championship.
Were absolutely ecstatic, said UNC coach Anson Dorrance, who has been on the sideline each time the Tar Heels have celebrated a championship. The classic question you get is Does it ever get old? Id say it gets better.
Since their first championship in 1982, North Carolina has never gone three years without hoisting the trophy. Ranked just 14th in the NSCAA coaches poll and entering the NCAA tournament as a No. 2 seed in their bracket, the chances of that distinction ending seemed likely.
UNC (15-5-3) needed a shootout to beat Baylor in the round of 16, then went to double overtime in consecutive wins over BYU on Nov. 18 and over Stanford in Fridays semifinal. The possibility of dead legs never seemed to enter the equation on Sunday, though, as the Tar Heels scored within the opening 71 seconds of each half, substituted liberally and wore down the sixth-ranked Nittany Lions.
North Carolina grasped early momentum with a goal by Kealia Ohai at 1:11, and after Penn State tied it before halftime, the Tar Heels put the pressure on again with another score 48 seconds into the second half.
The first came when junior striker Ohai stepped around two defenders as she settled a long, high pass from Satara Murray just inside the box, darted around a third defender and delivered a near-side bullet off the right half of the post.
North Carolinas second goal was even more propelling. Penn State (21-4-2) equalized on a 19th-minute tally from Taylor Schram, when she beat UNC goalie Adelaide Gay to a ball in the box and perfectly placed it inside the far post, but North Carolina had a response ready as the second half opened.
Forty eight seconds after the intermission, midfielder Katie Bowen delivered a corner kick from the right side to just beyond the left post. Defender Hanna Gardner timed her approach just right, then headed the ball across the mouth of the goal past the diving attempt of a Penn State field player to knock it away inside the right post.
When we score goals, we build confidence, said Ohai, who was named the most outstanding offensive player of the College Cup. We knew that if we could just get one, it would completely change the game. When Hanna got that goal, it really lifted our team.
North Carolina later registered second-half goals from Murray her first this season and Ranee Premji, but an early shift in defensive strategy may have been the key to the Tar Heels victory.
Just after Schrams game-tying goal in the first half, Dorrance switched from a 3-4-3 alignment to one that featured four defenders a change made necessary by Penn States persistent pressure.
The teams shared possession almost equally until that point, but with a reinforced back line, North Carolina took control and the improved defense resulted in more offensive opportunities.
They did a great job holding us to one goal, and the credit goes to their back line, Penn State midfielder Christine Nairn said. We threw absolutely everything at them, including the kitchen sink. Credit to their back line and their goalkeeping. It worked.
This North Carolina championship may be one of their most unlikely ones they beat three No. 1 seeds along the way.
There are so many great teams out there, and I think our job was to focus on what we had to do and not who the team was we were playing, UNC junior forward Crystal Dunn said. Yeah, we were only the second seed, but for us it was motivation to be playing these No. 1-seeded teams. We had to focus on us. We just wanted to come out stronger than the team we played that was our game.