Upset? North Carolina downs BYU

Graham Hays/ESPN.com

The Tar Heels are headed to the College Cup for the 26th time and have a chance to win their 21st NCAA title.

PROVO, Utah -- An hour before a quarterfinal between No. 1 seed BYU and No. 2 North Carolina, a man decked out in a BYU sweatshirt and hat traversed the sidewalk in front of South Field with a handmade sign familiar to games of consequence across sports but admittedly rarely seen in women's college soccer, even the NCAA tournament.

I need tickets.

Hopefully he found some and made use of them.

The end result was the most familiar story in the history of the college game. Crystal Dunn's deciding goal four minutes from a potential penalty shootout gave North Carolina a 2-1 victory. As a result, the Tar Heels are headed to the College Cup for the 26th time and have a chance to win their 21st NCAA title. They have reached the quarterfinals on 27 occasions, and only once, a penalty shootout loss against Florida State in 2005 that goes in the books as a draw, did they fail to advance. But this was not a game about prolonging the past; it was about surviving the present.

The Tar Heels outshot the home team by a 23-8 margin on Friday, including 10-4 in shots on goal. They earned 11 corner kicks, to four for the Cougars. They had much more of the ball throughout the game. But Anson Dorrance, the coach responsible for every one of those College Cup trips and national championships, wasn't just being magnanimous in talking about the difference between reaching the semifinals now and in his first trip in 1982.

"It's a nightmare," Dorrance said. "Honestly, we could have been eliminated in the last game. We won on penalty kicks, and we could have been knocked out easily in that game. There's no easy route to the Final Four."

North Carolina wasted little time living up to the reputation that had more than a few people on hand wondering aloud if the top seed was actually the underdog at home. Still in possession in BYU's end after a free kick fizzled in the game's opening minutes, Dunn gathered the ball near the corner of the 18-yard box, took a couple of touches to get herself in shooting position, four BYU players inexplicably giving her space, and blasted home the first goal in the fourth minute.

Far from silencing a sellout crowd of 4,291 that filled the bleachers and ringed the field, or rattling BYU players, Dunn's early goal seemed to bring the home team and the home supporters into the game. When Carlee Holmoe drew and Rachel Manning converted a penalty in the 27th minute, BYU had a level score it largely deserved, even if it ceded some of the run of play.

Everything about the game spoke to the changing world North Carolina inhabits. It was the first time the Tar Heels had ever played a quarterfinal on the road, the first time they had played a game on an opponent's field in any round since a semifinal against Santa Clara in 1996. The crowd, against a BYU program that didn't even field a varsity team until 1995, was bigger than that for the entire inaugural 1982 NCAA tournament.

A week after surviving a penalty shootout at home against Baylor, North Carolina was going to have to work for this trip to the semifinals.

BYU's best chance in regulation came barely a minute into the second half. An attempted clearance by Satara Murray in the box ricocheted off BYU's Cloee Colohan and fell back to her feet at about the penalty spot. Tar Heels goalkeeper Adelaide Gay made the initial stop with a kick save, but the ball rolled tantalizingly back into the green grass in front of goal.

The real drama for North Carolina came in the first overtime period. Twice in the span of a minute and a half, North Carolina players cleared balls off the line to keep their season alive. The first came courtesy of Brooke Elby, an all-out sprint and slide to knock away the goal-bound shot of Lindsi Lisonbee Cutshall, the center back who had sprinted forward and beaten Gay to create the open net. The second came from Dunn, heading away a Manning header from close range that was headed for the back of the net.

"It is a terrifying game to coach," Dorrance said. "You sit on the sideline and half the time your heart is in your throat. I mean, when Alyssa Rich whiffed on a pass and then the center back for BYU is on a breakaway, you're thinking game over."

It wasn't because of Elby, just as it wasn't moments later because of a save from Dunn, who was far and away the best player on a field with no shortage of candidates (more on the junior whose name Dorrance mentioned in the same sentence as those of legends like Mia Hamm and Kristine Lilly in the days to come).

The Tar Heels had plenty of chances to put the game away before Dunn finally did in dramatic fashion, Kealia Ohai rattling the post at one point and missing a handful of other prime chances in her Utah homecoming. But they had plenty of chances to see their season end, too, and no one would have batted an eye if BYU wound up in San Diego.

Same old North Carolina. Definitely not the same old NCAA tournament.

Maybe it was an upset. Maybe it wasn't. It was definitely a game anyone with a ticket was fortunate to see.

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