CARY — With a shootout looming and Georgetown’s goalkeeper having already stopped one penalty kick, North Carolina’s Julia Ashley had a message for her teammates as they prepared for the second overtime of Friday’s women’s soccer national semifinal game.
“I said to my team ‘someone’s going to finish this off for us in the next 10 minutes. Who’s it going to be?” she said. “I was that player today, I guess.”
Ashley and freshman Rachael Dorwart worked a picture perfect give-and-go with just 2:21 remaining in the second sudden death period for the golden goal that lifted the Tar Heels to a 1-0 victory at WakeMed Soccer Park.
The victory sends UNC into its 25th national championship game, where it will attempt to win its record 22nd NCAA crown. The Tar Heels (21-3-2) will take on Florida State in an all-ACC showdown for the title on Sunday, The Seminoles beat UNC 3-2 in the ACC tournament final in Cary on Nov. 4.
Ashley, an aggressive senior defender, started the winning play by breaking up a Hoya attack in her own end. Turning the ball upfield, she made strong run up the middle of the field before passing off to Dorwart just before she reached the top of the box.
Instinctively, Ashley kept running toward the front of the net, where she received a return pass from Dorwart and put the ball into the back of the net for her sixth and most important goal of the season.
“I might have been a little surprised that I got it back,” Ashley said of her winning play. “But once I got it again, I just tried to keep it going. (The coaches) are always telling us you’ve got to expect it and you’ve got to adjust. That’s what I did.”
Ashley’s game-winner capped a frantic second half and overtimes that saw the Tar Heels dominate play, but fail to convert any of their chances.
The best of those opportunities came with 5:32 remaining in regulation when freshman forward Madison Schultz was taken down by a Georgetown defender just inside the box for a penalty kick.
The situation couldn’t have been better for UNC. Less than 90 seconds earlier, Hoyas’ starting goalie Arielle Schechtman had to leave the game because of a leg injury. But despite coming in cold off the bench, her backup Lauren Gallagher made a spectacular leaping save on Taylor Otto’s penalty kick attempt to keep the game scoreless.
“I just guessed right,” Gallagher said. “It was a well-hit shot, but luckily I was there.”
Otto, UNC’s designated PK taker, couldn’t believe her eyes as the ball sailed over the crossbar and into the stands behind the net.
“After that happened, you just have to tell yourself my team’s got my back and not allow myself to let these girls lose this game,” Otto said. “I wasn’t going to go out on that.”
Otto did shake off the miss and nearly won it later in the first overtime when she beat Gallagher to a rebound and just missed putting it inside the near post with a sliding shot. Dorian Bailey and Schultz also had opportunities from close range in the second overtime, but were stuffed by the Georgetown goalie.
At that point, it appeared that the game would be decided in penalty kicks, which was the last thing anyone on the Tar Heels — especially Otto — wanted.
But Ashley made sure that didn’t happen with her determined individual effort.
“I was so excited about the result,” UNC coach Anson Dorrance said. “Although I think the most excited person in the stadium was Taylor Otto.”
Playing at a venue that has served as their home field this season while their stadium in Chapel Hill is rebuilt, the Tar Heels got off to a sluggish start against the unbeaten Hoyas (21-1-3).
Georgetown outshot UNC 5-4 in the first half, but it was all Tar Heels from that point on. Dorrance’s team, which hasn’t won a national title since 2012, piled up a 16-4 advantage in shots after halftime, including 8-0 in the two overtimes.
“First half we didn’t play very well,” Dorrance said. “We’ve seen our team play at a much higher level. So the discussion at halftime was ‘can we play better.’ The response in the room was ‘yes we can.’
“I felt like after halftime we really started to play. Even though we had to score the goal in the second overtime to advance, I thought there were other moments in that second half where we were absolutely outstanding.”