Tar Heels stun Terps in NCAA championship

By Zach Berman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 23, 2009

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- The Maryland field hockey players gathered near midfield, collectively stunned, fighting tears following a storybook season that went awry in its final minutes. A few yards away, North Carolina's players hoisted a national championship trophy that seemed destined for the Terrapins until the Tar Heels rallied to a dramatic 3-2 victory in Sunday's NCAA championship.

Maryland (23-1) was the tournament's top seed, undefeated throughout the 2009 season and the defending national champion. The Terrapins did not trail until the game's final seconds, and had a one-goal advantage in the waning minutes. North Carolina (20-2) even removed its goalie with just less than eight minutes remaining simply to conjure a chance at victory.

What followed was a Tar Heels surge that included a game-tying goal with 4 minutes 45 seconds remaining and a game-winning goal with 11.7 seconds left. And in that five-minute span, Maryland lost the game and the national championship.

"Certainly, we came here to win the national championship, we fell short of that, but it certainly doesn't impact any of the way we feel about what it took to get us here," Maryland Coach Missy Meharg said.

The game remained scoreless in the first half. Senior forward Nicole Muracco broke the tie nearly seven minutes into the second half with a breakaway goal before North Carolina evened the game with just less than 10 minutes to play. The Terrapins answered two minutes later to take the lead.

With the clock below eight minutes and entering what she called a "desperate situation," Tar Heels Coach Karen Shelton needed to gamble. She pulled her goalie, trusted her defense and relied on a situation they practiced all season.

"I'd rather go out in a blaze than not doing anything," Shelton said. "In the national championship game, you got to dare to be brilliant. You got to risk. We did, and it paid off."

A goal by Illse Davids with 4:45 remaining tied the game and shifted momentum. North Carolina received a penalty-corner opportunity in the game's final minute and allowed the clock to tick below 20 seconds.

The play was designed for senior Danielle Forword -- "the money player," Shelton said -- and she struck the ball past Maryland goalie Alicia Grater to secure the victory and conclude a forgettable few minutes for the Terrapins.

"It was just a matter of one play, one thing that makes a difference in the rest of the game," said Maryland junior forward Katie O'Donnell. "And they made the difference."

O'Donnell, the ACC's offensive player of the year, was held without a shot after setting an NCAA semifinals record with seven points in Friday's win over Princeton. North Carolina's Meghan Dawson "stuck to me like glue," O'Donnell said, which was Shelton's primary objective entering the game.

The Tar Heels won their sixth national championship. All have come under Shelton, who is in her 29th season as head coach. This season's title felt different after stunning a conference rival that was the nation's finest team until the season's final seconds.

"Just because we were such an underdog and we came from behind in such dramatic fashion," Shelton said. "To win it with a Maryland team that pretty much dominated us and outplayed us for probably about 70 percent of the game, and to win it with 11 seconds on the clock, was an incredible thrill."

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