The Washington State Cougars’ magical ride to the College Cup came to an end tonight when the No. 1 seed North Carolina Tar Heels survived a late Cougar onslaught to survive with a 2-1 victory in the national semifinal.
The Cougars came out ahead in most of the meaningful statistics, getting off 10 shots to UNC’s two, equaling the Tar Heels in shots on goal (four) and holding a 7-2 advantage on corner kicks.
Legendary UNC head coach Anson Dorrance said the Cougars outplayed his favored Tar Heels.
“I think so,” he said. “I think they created more chances, and I think we were lucky — lucky to be in the final.”
It was two moments of quality from the Tar Heels that made the difference.
Early on, it appeared WSU was ready to claim its place in the national championship game, as the Cougs employed their relentless pressing style to fluster the Tar Heels. They had dominated in the tournament and lost just one game all season, but the Cougars were the better team out of the gate.
Morgan Weaver scored a classic Morgan Weaver goal — the 43rd of her career — when she simply out-willed the UNC defense to an opportunity that she clinically put away:
The Cougars continued to put pressure on the Tar Heels, generating some corners, but UNC started to get a hold of the game a little bit around the 20th minute. Needing to clear their lines, WSU couldn’t, and the Taylor Otto eventually found a runner with a well-placed ball, and the finish by Alessia Russo was just as good:
The go-ahead goal, though, was the killer. Ru Mucherera charged up the flank and then hit a hard cross that put WSU goalkeeper Ella Dederick in no-person’s land — helped along by a dummy run to the near post — and Alexis Strickland put it home at the far post with a late run that nobody on the WSU defense saw:
Both goals were of the quality that you expect from the No. 2 team in the country. And a lesser team might have folded, particularly when the Tar Heels came out of halftime aiming to pick up a third goal that would have probably put the game away. For the first 25 minutes or so of the second half, UNC held most of the possession and generated most of the chances.
There was a feeling, though, that the Cougs might have been holding back just a little bit in that time — they weren’t pressing as high up the field, and there were fewer direct balls asking their attacking players to run into space. It was likely a nod to UNC’s depth, in which their substitutions functioned more like line changes in which the Tar Heels brought on players who would start for virtually anyone else in the country. The Cougs just can’t play at that pace for 90 minutes against a team with fresh legs like that.
WSU weathered the storm, though, and with about 20 minutes to go, they put their foot back on the pedal and pressured the Tar Heels once again. The Cougars outshot the Tar Heels 6-1 over the final 30 minutes of the game, forcing saves on three of them. For example:
There were plenty of good chances in there — not half chances — but WSU just couldn’t find the finishing touch that had been so characteristic of this run. UNC successfully played keep-away over the final few minutes as WSU was forced to resort to long searching balls, and the run came to an end.
Dorrance was duly impressed.
“I think to (WSU coach Todd Shulenberger’s) credit, he blew up that entire side of the bracket,” he said. “And very nearly, except for possibly a little bad luck, could have blown us up too. ...
“It was an extraordinary run for them. And honestly I feel a bit lucky to be sitting here to be in the final.”