Field Hockey: Northwestern falls 2-1 to North Carolina in national championship heartbreaker

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Gabriela Carroll/Senior Staffer

Alia Marshall runs with the ball. Marshall assisted on the only Northwestern goal in the 2-1 national championship defeat.

Gabriela Carroll, Senior Staffer

STORRS, CONN. — Northwestern’s quest to hold onto its title as national champions ended in heartbreak Sunday with a 2-1 loss against North Carolina. 

The Wildcats (20-5, 5-3 Big Ten) looked outmatched for much of the game, failing to record a shot on goal until the waning minutes of the final period. But their defense stood strong, allowing just one goal before NU got its first penalty corner opportunity with just over two minutes to play in the contest. 

Fifth-year forward Bente Baekers converted on the set play, bringing the Cats even with the Tar Heels and in position to take the game to overtime. But less than 40 seconds later, North Carolina star Erin Matson snuck past NU’s defense and redirected a Paityn Wirth shot into the net — the eventual game-winner.

“Credit to (the Tar Heels), and some credit that we were maybe a little bit off,” coach Tracey Fuchs said. “But I thought we fought for an entire game to stick with it, tie it late, but unfortunately, give up that goal 40 seconds later.”

The Cats played from behind in the first half, as the Tar Heels took five shots in the first quarter and tallied two penalty corner attempts. Carolina also earned a penalty stroke in the first, and junior goalkeeper Annabel Skubisz turned Matson’s shot aside. Matson hadn’t had a stroke attempt saved all season, going five-for-five prior to Sunday. 

Early in the second period, the Tar Heels earned their third penalty corner, but they bobbled the first pass and Skubisz made the save. But on their fourth attempt, Carolina pulled out another set piece, with Sietske Brüning finding Ryleigh Heck, who deflected the ball past Skubisz. 

In the second half, NU began to generate more offensive opportunities, playing more in the neutral zone. The Cats limited the Tar Heels to just three shots in the third quarter and two in the fourth.  

Fifth-year defender Kayla Blas said the team improved on “attacking with strength” in the second half. 

“I think we really changed and were more strong on the ball,” Blas said. “We were getting into the circle, maybe not ripping shots but hoping to maybe hit a foot, get a corner or any type of opportunity that we could have gotten.”

After Blas spoke post-game, Fuchs said Blas’ mature attitude was why she is “one of the best leaders Northwestern field hockey has ever seen.” 

For many of NU’s senior players, like Blas, this was their final game in a Cats uniform. Their time at NU saw them win the program’s first national title and make another national title game. 

Before last season, NU’s last Final Four appearance came in 1994. This season also marked consecutive finals appearances for the first time in program history. Despite the disappointing loss to the Tar Heels, the seniors have cemented their place in NU field hockey lore as some of the greatest players in the history of the program. 

“It’s a really unique and really special thing to be able to compete in a Final Four and especially in a national championship,” Blas said. “It was something that (Skubisz) told me when she came on her visit four years ago, and that I chuckled at, but slowly it turned into a reality once that class got here … It’s going to have a special place in my heart, even if the outcome isn’t what we necessarily wanted.”

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Twitter: @gablcarroll

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