All it took Friday night was one pass, one open player, one shot — and the dream of a national championship for the BYU women’s soccer team vanished.
North Carolina junior forward Kealia Ohai — a Draper native who played at Alta High School — got free deep in Cougar territory in the second sudden-death overtime period and passed the ball to dynamic junior forward Crystal Dunn.
Dunn slotted the ball perfectly into the back of the net, giving the Tar Heels the 2-1 victory over BYU at South Field in the Elite Eight game of the 2012 NCAA Women’s College Cup.
With the victory, North Carolina advances to the Final Four in San Diego, while the Cougars are left remembering an incredible year that has now come to a close.
“I’m proud of this year’s Cougar team,” said BYU head coach Jennifer Rockwood. “Hats off to North Carolina. What a phenomenal team. I thought they played an outstanding game and we wish them all the best.
“As far as our team goes, the girls battled. We’ve accomplished a lot of our goals. I think the team has a lot to be proud of.”
The Cougars said this was a special group, one that ended up ranked as high as No. 2 in the nation and earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. That success also got the fans in Provo to come out in droves to support their BYU team.
“I think a lot of it came from our team chemistry and how much we appreciate each other on and off the field,” said Cougar senior Cami Jensen. “Our fan support was phenomenal this year. I think our ability to play for each other and the school really came out this year, and I think that’s why we became such a favorite among the fans here.”
Friday night, however, BYU faced a deep, talented opponent that had a few incredible athletes.
The most impressive was Dunn, whose speed, ball-handling, vision and defense made her a constant threat.
She started the game off just the way the Tar Heels had hoped, skipping a low shot off the turf and into the net in the fourth minute of play.
“It was a challenge for us to keep moving the ball around them because they are so quick,” Dunn said. “Even if we got past them, there was another player coming in and helping out. It was a challenge. After the first goal, we settled in.”
But the Cougars used that as a wake-up call and started matching North Carolina’s aggression.
That paid big dividends with just under 20 minutes left in the half as BYU got the ball in deep to senior forward Carlee Payne Holmoe, who was fouled in the box.
Cougar junior midfielder Rachel Manning lined up the penalty kick and easily buried her first goal of the season to tie the score.
But even with that momentum boost and the efforts of more than 4,200 fans at South Field, BYU had a tough time getting into their game against the quickness of the Tar Heels.
“We didn’t keep the ball as much as we are used to and that was difficult,” Rockwood said. “North Carolina is very fast and very quick to pressure, so we had a hard time connecting. But we were still able to create some good opportunities.”
Both teams had some chances that might’ve turned the game in their favor throughout the regulation periods.
The best Cougar opportunity came when junior midfielder Chloee Colohan had a one-on-one shot against North Carolina senior keeper Adelaide Gay but hit it right at her.
The Tar Heels countered with intense pressure, with Ohai and Dunn forcing BYU junior keeper Erica Owens to make some big saves.
“Tonight was a more offensively-pressured game because of the speed of North Carolina,” Owens said. “Our defense managed to hold them back but unfortunately we weren’t able to hold back everything that they had.”
Rockwood said she was proud of the way the defense stood tall against the high-powered attack.
“They were absolutely phenomenal,” she said. “That’s been one of the strengths of our team is the commitment to team defense.
“Erica also came up with some big saves, just like she has done for us in every game this season. Lindsi (Cutshall) and Ashley (Bazzarone) were under incredible pressure in the middle and I thought they played some of the best soccer of their careers.”
As the game wore on, North Carolina also took advantage of having a deeper bench as 19 different Tar Heels saw time on the field compared to just 16 for the Cougars.
“The last couple of weeks we have played starters vs. reserves games on a regular basis,” said UNC head coach Anson Dorrance. “The reserves have been dominating the starters in practice. This is a very deep team. We can go deep and feel comfortable. I think it assisted us tonight.”
Dorrance said he knew BYU had plenty of athletes and his team had to find ways to counter the overall ability of the Cougars.
“If you look at their roster, their first 11 players are all extraordinarily athletic,” he said. “In terms of average athleticism, I think they were above us. We have some extraordinary individuals. We rode those kids to this victory.”
Neither team could find a way to score before time ran out, sending the game into sudden-death overtime.
BYU looked like it might have snatched the victory on two consecutive plays early in the first extra frame.
First, Cougar senior defender Lindsi Cutshall made a great breakaway run and managed to touch the ball past Gay, only to have her shot at the empty net get cleared off the line and out of bounds by sophomore midfielder Brooke Elby.
On the ensuing BYU corner kick, the Cougars managed to head the ball on frame only to have Dunn slide in and head it out before it could enter the goal.
“You can’t ask for more than four or five good looks and we did create those chances today,” Rockwood said. “Both plays were great hustle for Carolina as they came back and made saves.”
That turned out to be the last good opportunity for BYU. The first extra period ended and it was North Carolina that got the game-winner in the second overtime.
“We’re incredibly excited to be going to the Final Four,” Dorrance said. “We feel really fortunate to have beaten a superb BYU team.”
The Cougars will have to be content with their second-ever trip to the Elite Eight and hope to build on the success of 2012 for the future.
“Everyone found their roles and supported one another,” Rockwood said. “We’ll also remember the big wins. We created a lot of phenomenal memories, especially in this last month. We told the girls afterwards to be proud, to walk away with their head held high. They will remember these memories for a lifetime.”
Daily Herald sports editor Jared Lloyd can be reached at 801-344-2555 or email@example.com. He can also be followed on Twitter at @JaredrLloyd.