HOOVER, Ala – Much to the delight of North Carolina’s goalkeeper Scott Goodwin, and Tar Heel fans, Jordan Gafa is a man of his word. He saved their championship.
Gafa’s defensive play during Charlotte’s furious flurry of shots late helped make the Tar Heel’s lone goal stand up and earn UNC the championship on Sunday afternoon.
By any objective measures there was no denying that Charlotte (16-5-4) carried the play throughout the game, pounding on a UNC (21-2-3) team admittedly still weary from Friday night’s overtime win against UCLA.
But in the 65th minute, Ben Speas happened. Speas, changed the course of a game. He seemed to cover every blade of grass in 49ers zone, taking on seemingly every member of Charlotte’s defense before he curled a 25-foot left footed blast just above the outstretched arms of Klay Davis, the 49ers’ goalkeeper, for a 1-0 lead.
Charlotte was unfazed. During the final five minutes it rained shot after shot on the Tar Heels net. The flurry started with perhaps the 49ers’ best chance Thomas Allen headed a corner kick toward the goal for what looked like a sure-thing equalizer. Then Gafa, out of nowhere, positions himself on the line and headed the ball out, saving Goodwin.
“I saw it, but there was no way I was getting to it,” Goodwin said. “We’re a family, and that’s the thing. If I can’t get to it, somebody’s going to have my back on that. I remember Gafa told me after the game that he said on Day 1 first game of the season that you know what, if it gets by, I’ve got your back on that. He did, last game of the year, right at the end.
“(What Gafa said) doesn’t have time to register right then. But once the play gets away from you (to the other end), you realize he had me there. I was just trying to get side to side and get as close to where the guy was heading it as possible. I got over there and thought I had decent position. (Allen) had a great header back to the opposite side, and it’s tough when you’re moving across the [in one direction] trying to move back that quickly, but luckily Gafa was there to help me out.”
Outside of this being the biggest game, who else was going to do what Gafa did at that moment? He was practically raised to do what he did. He reacted and a promise was kept.
“It was just natural instinct,” Gafa said. “From the time I was 13 years old, I remember my coach telling me, “Cover the goalkeeper. No matter what.’ I’ve done it in practice. I’ve done it in games the whole year.
I told Scotty since the first time I met him I would be there for him and it’s always been like that. I saw it, got a good head on it to clear it far enough to one of my teammates. We were able to hang on for the rest of the match. To do this in the national championship game, heading the ball off the line and keeping my team in it. I’m pretty speechless about it.”
As were the 49ers following the match. Their fantastic run ended with a spectacular effort. They went toe-to-toe with the nation’s No. 1 team and did not flinch. No surprise there since to get here they had to knock off defending champion Akron, No. 3 seed Connecticut, and, in Friday night’s semifinal, No. 2 seed Creighton. So Charlotte’s relentless pressure on the Tar Heels to the final whistle hardly ranks as a startling development.
“We had them on the ropes the last 10 minutes,” T.J. Beaulieu, Charlotte’s senior forward, said. “We had a lot of good chances. Thomas Allen had a header that cleared off the line. I had a header that hit the crossbar. We were all over them. I don’t know how many chances we had. We were a bit unlucky.”
Chance had little to do with it in the eyes of Charlotte coach Jeremy Gunn. Throughout the tournament he has rejected the Cinderella label for his team; a hackneyed narrative foisted upon his team by a media corps displaying a distinct absence of originality. There was no easy peg for the 49ers. Nothing about their accomplishments this season has been easy, and they did not go gently into this good night.
“We’ve had an unbelievable fighting spirit all year,” Gunn said. “It’s been an amazing season where we somehow managed to score last gasp goals. It’s because of the way the players just stayed composed, and stayed driving.
“It’s incredible what they were doing. You look at the game (Sunday night), the last five minutes it was incredible what we were doing. You’re going to have to watch it (later) and you’re going to be jumping all over looking at the half chance, chances, blocked shots. Everything . . . We gave them everything at the end, really. It just wasn’t quite to be.”