PHOTO BY JOHN STROHSACKER

Perfection Personified: UNC Lifts 'Hex' and Rides All-In Mentality to Title


Jamie Ortega said it felt like a hex.

The NCAA Division I women’s semifinal between North Carolina and Northwestern had distinct here-we-go-again vibes. Undefeated, top-seeded UNC was on the ropes less than a quarter into the game. Memories of 2021, when the Tar Heels were undefeated until they lost to eventual national champion Boston College in the semifinals, were at the forefront.

“Even Friday night I was like, ‘Can we get past this?’ Ortega said.

It wasn’t just that Northwestern led 6-0 with 1:11 left in the first quarter. It was the breakneck pace with which the Wildcats picked apart the Tar Heels. The all-out assault left the North Carolina fans in Baltimore at a loss for words.

The only thing that could stop Northwestern was lightning. A game originally scheduled for 3 p.m. Eastern was moved up to 12:30 p.m. to accommodate the possibility of inclement weather, but the schedule change proved for naught. With 1:11 left in the first quarter and a tornado watch in effect, lightning illuminated the skyline beyond Homewood Field, sending both teams to the locker room.

“We all just sat down and were like, ‘How are we feeling?’” Ortega said. “People said they were scared or nervous or overwhelmed. We’re human. We have these emotions. We admitted what was holding us back, and once we said it, we were good.”

It wasn’t as if North Carolina hadn’t been in this situation this season. High Point held a 5-2 lead against the Tar Heels on March 23 before North Carolina awakened for a 23-9 win. In the ACC semifinals against Notre Dame, the Irish held a 5-0 lead before UNC came back for a 14-13 win.

But this stage held different weight. North Carolina had been bounced from the NCAA semifinals every year since 2018 — a streak depicting both its status as a perennial power and also how hard it’s been to get over the hump.


“We’re human. We have these emotions. We admitted what was holding us back, and once we said it, we were good.”

— Jamie Ortega


The open-heart conversations proved fruitful. Volunteer assistant coach Caylee Waters helped facilitate the dialogue. They remembered the phrase “We get to,” a saying from longtime North Carolina supporter Matt “Dezy” DiStefano, who spoke to the team several years ago, six months before he died of kidney cancer.

We get 45 more minutes to turn the tide, they thought.

“One of the phrases around our program is, ‘Honesty is love,’” assistant coach Phil Barnes said. “When you’re able to be honest, not only with yourself but with the people you’re with and the people you need to trust, that ability to be honest is really powerful.”

Carolina and Northwestern walked on the field over an hour later with strikingly different demeanors than that with which they walked off. The Wildcats, seemingly in the driver’s seat, were business-like. ESPN’s Dana Boyle said they had a dance party in the locker room, but that exuberance didn’t carry out onto the field. Instead, the Tar Heels were the ones singing and dancing while they re-emerged like they were the ones holding the six-goal lead.

As Lupe Fiasco’s “The Show Goes On” blared over the Homewood loudspeaker, the sides warmed up for a second time. It was a fitting song for North Carolina to hear after its heart-to-heart. Down six goals, there was still plenty of time left. Ninety-six minutes later, it was game time again.

The advantage didn’t shift immediately. North Carolina still struggled to find its footing, trailing 8-2 at halftime and 13-6 after three quarters. It was 14-7 with 10:15 left to play. That's when doubles started flying and Sam Geiersbach started scoring.

In the second-biggest comeback in NCAA tournament history, the Tar Heels scored the game’s final eight goals — five by Geiersbach — to advance to the NCAA championship game. Two days later, they defeated Boston College for the program’s third national title and first since 2016.

“A lot of people asked me that after the [semifinal], like, ‘Oh, did you feel like you were going to lose it?’” Ally Mastroianni said. “And the answer is no. We have so much confidence in one another and so much belief in one another and we kept reinforcing that with all the little plays. Each [play], we were looking in each other’s eyes and saying, ‘I believe in you.’”








AMELIA SHEEHAN DROPPED TO BOTH KNEES ON THE TURF NEAR MIDFIELD. She was already holding her own personal NCAA championship trophy. As the public address announcer introduced Sam Geiersbach, Sheehan began to bow repeatedly, as if to say, “We’re not worthy.”

Geiersbach had just continued her semifinal dominance in the championship game, scoring three goals — including the go-ahead goal with 5:26 left — in North Carolina’s 12-11 win over Boston College in the final. She tiptoed the crease and scored while looking at the lined goal circle beneath her feet to give the Tar Heels an 11-10 lead.

A transfer from Richmond, Geiersbach was eager to simply join the Tar Heels this fall. Playing time? That would have been icing on the cake. On a roster brimming with both current and future All-Americans, the graduate student who was an offensive leader for the Spiders came off the bench for the Tar Heels.

“I knew that this was going to be their year, and I just wanted a piece of it, whether I was on the field or not,” Geiersbach said.

She was named the NCAA championship’s most outstanding player.

Every Tar Heel had a role to play in this national championship run. Head coach Jenny Levy began the post-championship press conference by rattling off a list of 15 players who hardly saw the field in the last few weeks of the season.

Sheehan was one of them. A midfielder from Bronxville, N.Y., Sheehan redshirted her freshman season last year and saw action in three games this spring. She scored once against Virginia in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

But Sheehan knows her value rests in practice on the scout team and on the sidelines as one of the leaders of the bench mob. Her voice hoarse after using it often to hype up the crowd or celebrate the achievements of a teammate, Sheehan put it into perspective.

“Not getting to play is definitely a challenge,” she said. “Getting to practice every single day and wanting to get yourself better and your teammates better is the attitude you have to have. I just changed my perspective a little bit. I’m doing everything for my team.”

That team-first mentality extends to the players who rarely leave the field, too. Taylor Moreno started 76 consecutive games to close her UNC career and went 70-6 in that time. But she was pulled during the NCAA semifinal, a 7-minute, 47-second respite on the sideline that allowed her to reset.

Waters first noticed that Moreno might need a break. Barnes agreed. So did Levy.

“What’s unique about our staff is that everyone has played for Jenny and myself,” Barnes said. “They understand what we’re thinking, and they’ve gone through some of the same experiences that we’ve gone through.”

“[Moreno] completely understood what was happening and why it was happening. That sign of maturity in a goalkeeper was amazing. Caylee had that same type of maturity.”

Moreno was candid postgame when discussing her struggles. But instead of marinating in negative emotions, she loudly celebrated freshman Alecia Nicholas, her replacement, who athletically helped kickstart a North Carolina clear.

Lo and behold, Moreno sealed the one-goal win with 28 seconds remaining, making a split save on Northwestern star Lauren Gilbert.

“Really successful athletes tell themselves the truth,” Barnes said. “They’re able to recognize the truth of what’s happening.”




PHOTO BY JOHN STROHSACKER

Sam Geiersbach was a Championship Weekend hero for the Tar Heels.


THE DEAN OF NORTH CAROLINA’S DEFENSE, Barnes is also the team’s director of recruiting. He leaves no stone unturned — and leaves little time for himself to decompress after a long season.

Less than 24 hours after celebrating the national championship team that he helped build, Barnes was readying to get out on the recruiting trail.

“Some teams have a three-, four-week jump on us,” he said.

Even above a prospect’s footwork or stick skills, Barnes is out to find high schoolers who share the same core values (family and selflessness) North Carolina has established during an era of dominance. Core values that made Gabi Hall, a first-time starter after spending the last three years on the bench, an unheralded piece of the nation’s No. 6 defense. Core values that made Brooklyn Walker-Welch, a freshman defender attacked possession after possession by Boston College, mentally strong enough to hold her ground. Core values that helped unsung heroes Brooklyn Neumen and Elizabeth Hillman shine in key moments.

“It doesn’t matter where you come from, if your father or mother are Wall Street bankers or teachers or firefighters,” Barnes said. “The number one trait is core values within the family. You can have different personalities. There’s no problem with different personalities.”

Just about every team preaches “family.” Few embody it like North Carolina. During the team’s lowest point, staring down another semifinal disappointment, the players came together as a collective, sharing honest feelings like a family.

“Whenever you achieve something in life, the moments that are really, really great are when you have tremendous adversity,” Barnes said. “That’s what makes great moments great. To go through that experience is powerful.”

The show goes on.


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