CARY, N.C. – With a Virginia defender behind her and in front of her, Alessia Russo ran onto the ball played ahead of her and entered the penalty area with confidence. Those Cavaliers couldn’t close in quick enough and the junior forward for the North Carolina Tar Heels unleashed a right-footed shot that beat Virginia’s back-up goalkeeper and rattled the back of the cage. What followed were cheers that echoed throughout WakeMed Soccer Park.
Russo’s golden goal in the 102nd minute gave No. 3 North Carolina a 2-1 victory over No. 1 Virginia in the ACC women’s soccer championship in front of an announced crowd of 2,492 fans Sunday. It was the 22nd ACC title for the Tar Heels and their first since 2017.
“We beat an outstanding Virginia team,” UNC coach Anson Dorrance said. “That was a great team that we beat. It’s a wonderful achievement. I’m incredibly proud of that championship.”
The victory was UNC’s first over a No. 1 ranked team since 2012. It was also the first loss of the season for Virginia (16-1-3).
“Congrats to North Carolina. I thought they were very, very good. I thought it was a tremendous advertisement for college soccer. If you want to get a feel for the state of women’s college soccer in this country, I don’t think you could’ve had a better advertisement than this game,” Swanson said. “Disappointing result for us, but I’m really proud of our team. I thought they played exceptionally well.”
For her heroics, Russo was named MVP of the ACC tournament and it was an emotional moment for the native of Kent, England. A year ago, she didn’t get the chance to play in this tournament or the NCAA’s after she had surgery to repair her broken leg. This season she’s scored nine goals and had an assist over 18 contests and has continued to be one of the most feared attacking players in the country.
“I don’t really remember it, to be honest,” Russo said of her game-winning goal. “We fought to the end. It was fantastic… Injuries are horrible, but it’s part of the game. Being sidelined (last season) was tough but it makes the high so much better when you come out. It was a fight for 90 minutes. It was the girls. We fought and we won.”
— ACC Women's Soccer (@ACCWSoccer) November 10, 2019
North Carolina (19-1-1) found its first goal of the day early, scoring in the sixth minute. Lotte Wubben-Moy launched a corner kick into the box and 2019 ACC Freshman of the Year Maycee Bell leapt up and met the ball with her head, knocking it between a Virginia defender and goalkeeper Laurel Ivory for her second goal of the season.
“Before the game, Anson challenged me to go up and win the balls in the corners,” Bell said. “Just took the challenge and it was awesome.”
UNC remained relentless in its attack, racking up 12 shots and seven corner kicks over regulation, but couldn’t find a second goal over that stretch to put cushion between itself and Virginia. Ivory came up with three saves for the ‘Hoos in 84 minutes.
Virginia struggled to create good scoring chances in the first half, but did find one in the 23rd minute. Unfortunately for the ‘Hoos, Meghan McCool’s attempt was snuffed out by UNC’s Claudia Dickey.
The Cavaliers found an equalizer in the 68th minute though, taking advantage of a moment where North Carolina didn’t have its best 11 women on the pitch. Dorrance made a line change in the 65th minute to give Brianna Pinto, Taylor Otto, Russo and Isabel Cox a breather – each of whom were selected to All-ACC teams this season. Less than four minutes later, Diana Ordonez followed up on a deflected free kick from teammate Talia Staude and blasted the shot into the back of the net. It was Ordonez’s 14th score of the season.
Dorrance reinserted Pinto, Otto, Russo, Cox, Rachel Jones and Bridgette Andrzejewski in the 73rd minute. Russo forced Ivory into a save just three minutes later.
“What was extraordinary is the number of chances we created against a great team,” Dorrance said. “In the first half, I was overjoyed with our performance, but one of the risks we take by taking a high-pressing game is the prospect of us losing our legs eventually, which started to happen, certainly in the second half.”
Ivory kept Virginia in the game with her stellar goalkeeping, but had to exit the game in the 85th minute after she came off her line to stop a UNC scoring chance and was run over by Pinto. Ivory went down, but walked off the field on her own.
After the game, Swanson wasn’t sure what Ivory’s status was, but said she would undergo a CT scan.
“She took a pretty good knock, but we’re not sure. Obviously in that situation, with a concussion, you have to be careful,” Swanson said. “Hopefully she’s fine… It was hard for me to tell, but it looked like a bang-bang play. These things happen in and around the box. I don’t think there was anything malicious about it. Just two players really competing hard for the ball.”
Sophomore Michaela Moran entered the game for the Cavaliers between the pipes. She had only appeared in four matches this season, but seemed up to the task. In the 90th minute, she saved a Bell header off a corner kick near the far post, forcing extra time.
Virginia looked to have a game-winner in the first period of extra time, but Rebecca Jarrett’s 94th minute attempt clanked off the post.
“It kind of bounced off my foot in a weird way,” Jarrett said.
Neither team had another attempt on-goal until the 102nd minute, when Emily Fox fed Russo over the top and the English forward finished her chance in the lower left corner of the net.
In all, UNC out-shot Virginia 16-4, putting six attempts on-frame. The Tar Heels attempted 10 corner kicks to the Cavaliers’ one.
Next up for both of these teams is the NCAA tournament. The brackets will be released Monday and the chances of both sides earning No. 1 seeds are likely. It’s possible they could meet again at the College Cup Final Four in San Jose, California.
“Endings like that always sting, but I think we can use it to our advantage and use it as momentum,” McCool said. “We have a long season ahead of us… It definitely hurts, but it was a great game.”