CHAPEL HILL — With North Carolina’s leading scorer, Crystal Dunn, sidelined by a leg injury, the Tar Heels had to look elsewhere for their offense.
They found plenty.
Senior forward Kealia Ohai struck for two goals, and sophomore midfielder Paige Nielsen came off the bench to add a goal and an assist Saturday as fifth-ranked UNC cruised past visiting Liberty 4-0 in the first round of the NCAA women’s soccer tournament.
The Tar Heels (18-4), seeded first in their region, also will host the second and third rounds this week at Fetzer Field. On Friday, Texas Tech and fourth-seeded Texas A&M will square off at 3:30 p.m., with UNC taking on Indiana at 6 p.m. Friday’s winners will meet at 1 p.m. Sunday.
Dunn, the ACC offensive player of the year, has missed the last two games with an unspecified leg injury. Ohai took it upon herself to fill the void, notching her ninth and 10th goals of the season as UNC, the reigning NCAA champion, matched its season scoring high.
“Kealia is our resident superstar, along with Dunn,” UNC coach Anson Dorrance said. “She just took the game over. She had an absolutely brilliant first half. This is one of the best games K has played all year.”
At the 14:56 mark of the first half, Ohai scored from 10 yards out after Summer Green stole the ball in the Liberty midfield and laid off a perfect pass on the right flank to her. Five minutes into the second half, Ohai made it 2-0 after she settled a throw-in from Megan Brigman in the left corner, eluded two defenders and buried a shot in the far corner of the goal.
Ohai, Green and Nielsen led the way as Tar Heels dominated play and posted a 23-3 shooting advantage over the Flames (16-6-1).
“Crystal's a huge part of the team,” Ohai said. “It has been difficult without her. I don't want the season to end. I told myself before the game I was going to step up, whether it was running or scoring.”
Nielsen and Cameron Castleberry also added second-half goals. Green set up Nielsen with a cross at 67:28, and at 81:05 Castleberry headed in the rebound of a Nielsen shot that was saved by Liberty goalkeeper Holly Van Noord. That scoring play also started on a throw-in by Brigman, whose two assists gave her the team lead with seven.
Defensively the Tar Heels recorded their 13th shutout as goalkeeper Anna Sieloff had to make only one save. Van Noord had nine for Liberty.
Liberty coach Jessica Hain, a former N.C. State player, said the Tar Heels showed why they are a quality team.
“They were able in the second half to switch the point of attack well,” she said. “In the second half on the first couple of goals they did a very good job of playing one- and two-touch, opening up gaps and taking advantage of one-v.-one.”
Dorrance gave Liberty credit for pressuring the Tar Heels in the first half. “They press like we do and make it hard for you to play with composure,” he said.
“Obviously eventually our depth, our athletic ability, made it hard for them to stay with us.”