Reigning national champ UNC heard loud and clear
Liberty fans made all the noise in the Fetzer Field grandstand, but North Carolina was loudest on the field, scoring three second-half goals to rout the Flames 4-0 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Saturday.
Several dozen Liberty University fans made the trip from Lynchburg, Va., to watch the Flames play the No. 1 seeded reigning national champion Tar Heels, and they were noisy from start to finish.
But any hopes of victory went away in the second half, when Kealia Ohai scored her second goal, and Cameron Castleberry and Paige Nielsen came off the bench to each put the ball in the net, too.
“Regardless of who’s watching, we’re going to do our thing on the field,” said forward Summer Green, who had two assists. “That’s the main goal.”
With leading scorer Crystal Dunn sidelined by injury, UNC (18-4) turned to Ohai for offense, and the senior forward didn’t disappoint. Ohai realized early in the game she could beat her Liberty defenders, and she turned up the offense.
Ohai took a pass from Green and dumped it in the net for her first goal in the 15th minute and a 1-0 lead. She had several more scoring chances in the first half, finally breaking through with her second goal early in the second half on a pass form Megan Brigman.
“It started with me deciding I was going to go one v. one every time I got the ball,” Ohai said. “That confidence began to build, and I was able to score two goals.”
Tar Heel coach Anson Dorrance said Ohai had a “wonderful game.”
“With Dunn out, Kealia is our resident superstar,” Dorrance said. “She just took the game over. She had an absolutely brilliant first half and this was one of the best games she’s played all year.”
UNC peppered Liberty keeper Holly Van Noord with 23 shots as the Heels pounded the Flames’ 15th-ranked defense. Liberty (16-6-1) had given up 12 goals in 22 games, but the Flames haven’t faced many teams with as much firepower as North Carolina – and a team playing on its home field.
“This was our home, and we want to protect it,” Green said. “We want to play as well as we can on it and have respect for the team that we played against. I was really happy with our team. We played out of our minds and we never stopped running. Every center-back, every outside-back, every midfielder, every forward, we never stopped defending.”
Dorrance emptied his bench in the second half, but UNC continued to press. Depth could be an important ally for the Tar Heels as the tournament continues.
“The fitness that we’re doing right now, it sucks,” Ohai said before running with her teammates across the field. “At the beginning of the season, you don’t understand why you’re doing it. But now is when it starts to pay off, and now you can see everyone scoring, Cam Castleberry, Paige, and it’s amazing how deep our team is.
“Especially with Crystal out, it’s really difficult to rely on 11 starters. As we get deeper in the tournament, we’re going to get tired, and we need them to step up. They stepped up today.”
UNC will host the winner of the Indiana-DePaul game in the second round at home this Friday at 6 p.m., with Texas A&M and Tech Tech preceding at 3:30 p.m.
Ohai, for one, would love Liberty fans to come back.
“Their fans were classy,” Ohai said. “I wish they would come every game.”