UCLA knocks off defending champ UNC

Courtesy of Liza David/UCLA Athletics

UCLA has reason to smile after taking down the last two national champions in the NCAA tournament just to get to the College Cup.

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- UCLA knew it wanted its season to end in North Carolina. It just didn't want it to end here.

UCLA and North Carolina had played nine times before Saturday's NCAA women's soccer tournament quarterfinal. North Carolina won all nine of those games, by a combined 28-6 margin. That dominance included a 1-0 win earlier this season in nearby Durham, N.C., a game that was not as close as the final score might suggest.

North Carolina had played 26 quarterfinal games at Fetzer Field before Saturday. It went 25-0-1 in those games.

But there is a first time for everything.

With a little more than a minute gone in the second overtime period, sophomore Taylor Smith scored on her own rebound to give No. 2 UCLA a 1-0 win against No. 1 North Carolina. The result means that instead of a long flight back to Los Angeles, the Bruins will stick around for next week's College Cup a few miles down the road in Cary, N.C. and a semifinal against No. 1 overall seed Virginia.

UCLA finished the regular season with just that lone loss against North Carolina on its record. It went on the road and beat Duke and Notre Dame, and topped Marquette on a neutral field. It won the Pac-12 by a comfortable margin, ending a long drought against rival Stanford, and led the nation in fewest goals allowed per game.

For all of that, it was rewarded not with a No. 1 seed, but a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament, behind four teams from the ACC. Not only that, but first-year coach Amanda Cromwell saw a draw that meant her team would likely need to beat Stanford again and then beat North Carolina in Chapel Hill to reach the College Cup.

"I don't know if I could say all the words that came to my mind," Cromwell said of her reaction to the draw. "Not having the No. 1 seed came to mind first because we thought we deserved that with our body of work through the season. And then not only getting the No. 2 seed but being put into this bracket with UNC, when I looked at it, I was like 'Wow, we have to beat the last two national champions just to get to the final four.'

Liza David/UCLA Athletics

UCLA celebrates after advancing to the College Cup for the ninth time in program history.

"Right now we feel like we accomplished something and we haven't even gotten to the final four yet. So it's a weird feeling because these last two games, especially Stanford and UNC, those are final four-caliber games."

UCLA wasn't the sole aggressor in the opening half, not against a North Carolina team that built its dynasty on high pressure, but the Pac-12 team was an aggressor. That wasn't true when the two teams met the first week of September. UCLA fought back when challenged in that game but nonetheless played most of the night scrambling for some kind of foothold, and was lucky to escape with a one-goal defeat.

On Saturday, the Bruins pushed back against the Tar Heels and pushed forward on the field. Forwards Smith and Darian Jenkins chased the ball and hounded defenders deep in North Carolina's end. Outside backs Ally Courtnall and Caprice Dydasco pushed forward alongside them. Midfielder Samantha Mewis threw her 5-foot-11 frame into the fray and fed pass after pass that came tantalizingly close to springing a teammate in alone on goal.

After the game in September, North Carolina coach Anson Dorrance predicted Cromwell would turn the Bruins into a team with the mental and physical strength to match their recruiting resume. He proved prophetic.

"UCLA has improved a lot," Dorrance said. "They are a lot harder now. I think the lesson we may have taught them in our first game is the advantage of pressing, because I thought in the first game against them, they didn't press us. It was sort of a more relaxed, 'we'll let you play if you let us play' sort of mentality. I think the transformation in UCLA is they are starting to press a bit. Every pass was challenged. Every pass was pressed to an extent. And that made us play faster and not as well."

The Bruins' ability to play more of the game in North Carolina's end, even if they didn't necessarily have the ball, nearly produced the opening goal. Smith chipped a ball off the crossbar from 40 yards in the 15th minute after a clearance from North Carolina goalkeeper Anna Sieloff was deflected by yet another UCLA player pressuring the ball.

North Carolina, which played almost the entire first half and much of the game without All-American midfielder Crystal Dunn after she injured her ankle in a Sweet 16 win against Texas A&M, eventually gained the upper hand in the opening half but couldn't translate possession into quality chances against the Bruins. It held a 7-3 edge in shots at the break, but Dunn's blocked blast from close range in the closing seconds was the best chance. And as the second half played out, it was UCLA which caught up to North Carolina and played on level footing for the final 45 minutes.

UCLA gained a lot from its early two-week road trip that produced the victories against Duke, Marquette and Notre Dame. But the loss in the finale of that trip might have made the season.

"We knew we would be exposed a little bit," Cromwell said. "And we had to be exposed to really learn what we needed to work on."

Make no mistake, UCLA didn't dominate North Carolina on Saturday. If any team had an edge in the run of play, it was the home team. But if there was some good fortune in Smith, by her account, making eye contact with midfielder Sarah Killion and then making the run down the middle that produced the goal after she got a foot on the ball as it came back from an initial save by Sieloff, it was good fortune well earned. Few teams even try to play North Carolina at its own high-pressure game, even a North Carolina team beset by injuries to key players like Dunn, Alexa Newfield and Caitlin Ball. Fewer still are still up for the challenge after more than 100 minutes.

Hired late in the spring after former coach B.J. Snow accepted a head coaching position with the United States Under-17 national team, Cromwell didn't have much time to install her own system. More than that, she didn't have much time to get the players to know her, let alone trust her. The first trip to North Carolina helped on both counts. It showed the players what they needed to do on the field. It gave them time together off the field.

"Amanda's done a great job on and off the field of bringing this team together and putting something together that's great, that works, that's really functional," Smith said.

None of these players are the new coach's recruits, none of the high school All-Americans, youth national-team players or even full internationals (New Zealand's Rosie White).

Well, that's not entirely true. She didn't convince any of them to come to UCLA, but she called junior defender Courtnall her first recruit. A two-sport athlete in soccer and track her first two seasons, the daughter of former NHL player Russ Courtnall originally cut her workload to just track this year. Cromwell talked her into coming out of her brief soccer retirement. She wasn't a factor in the first game against North Carolina, but it was hard to miss her in the rematch. Showing off the speed of the sprinter she is, she stuck with Tar Heels All-American Kealia Ohai for much of the night and pushed forward to help stretch the defense.

No player is a better example of the Bruins buying in to both system and spirit. Courtnall listened to what Cromwell had to say.

"We're going to try to win a national championship," Cromwell recalled of her recruiting pitch.

They knew all along that meant going through North Carolina. It just required one more game than expected.

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