SAN DIEGO — Heading into the locker room at the end of the first half with his team tied against Penn State at one apiece, North Carolina coach Anson Dorrance formulated a plan.
He saw that Penn State’s major weapons — seniors Christine Nairn and Maddy Evans and junior Maya Hayes — had played the entire first half. He also knew that the Nittany Lions were coming off of a taxing overtime win on Friday against Florida State. Dorrence capitalized, switching up his defense and utilizing his bench to tire out the Penn State attack en route to a 4-1 win in the College Cup championship game Sunday in San Diego.
After a competitive first half that ended 1-1, the Tar Heels completely dominated the second, scoring in the first 48 seconds and never looking back. Dorrance switched from a 3-4-3 to a 4-3-2-1 formation late in the first half, loading up his defense to halt the production of the Lions’ top-ranked scoring attack.
“I could sense that a lot of stars for Penn State had played for most of the half,” Dorrance said. “The decision we had to make was whether to stick with the plan of rotating players in and out. What I wanted to plant in the heads of my players is that this was going to be an ordeal and we were going to try and win the game by playing our depth.”
Depth was a key component to UNC’s dominant second half in which Penn State was out shot, 15-8. Dorrance rotated 20 different players into the game and sent substitutions out frequently to keep fresh legs on the field and wear the Lions out.
Injuries throughout the season have limited the Lions' bench as they moved deep into the NCAA tournament. Though coach Erica Walsh was able to send some reserves into the action, the Lions’ bench could not match that of North Carolina’s.
“It was definitely challenging, after every 15 minutes they would just sub a new line,” junior Taylor Schram said. “We had a couple injuries early in the year and that took away from our depth so it was tough when you’re playing against fresh legs second game of the weekend, but we dug deep and tried to hang in there.”
The biggest struggle for the Lions was defending the Tar Heels' set pieces. UNC junior Katie Bowen delivered a well-placed corner kick right in position for a header by freshman Hanna Gardner to open the half.
In the 63rd minute, the Tar Heels set up for an additional corner kick by Bowen. Though she did not connect initially for a goal, sophomore Satara Murray picked it up in the middle after several deflections and fired a ball high into the back of the net to give her team a 3-1 lead.
North Carolina possessed the ball the majority of the second half with seven corners in the half compared to Penn State’s four. Overall the Tar Heels outshot the Lions 24-12 in the match.
“The volume of set pieces that they had the opportunity to get, eight corners against Carolina is too many,” Walsh said. “They were able to expose space behind our outside backs. We went to a four back to try to stop it after but there’s just so many weapons in the Carolina team, and Chapic and Hovington were excellent as usual, but when there’s space you have to track things down.”
Trailing by two with under 30 minutes in the half, the Lions could not muster up a consistent attack like Florida State did against them on Friday when a flurry of shots in the final 10 minutes led to a goal that took the game into overtime.
Though they were able to get a few looks toward the end of the game, Penn State could not find a way to connect before UNC reserve Ranee Premji scored from the left wing to put the game away for the Tar Heels.
“The story of this game to be told through the timing of these goals,” Walsh said. “When you’ve got the momentum, you have all these things in front of you and all of a sudden you a have a ball in the back of the net that you’re picking out. You’re constantly searching for answers at that point and that’s what Carolina did to us — they had us searching for the next answer trying to do different things.”
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