Dec. 5, 2009

By Jim McCurdy
Special to NCAA.com


COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- In this game, a couple of yards, a couple of inches can be the difference.

North Carolina has differing views on measurements, but either way, it was the only one that was needed in this game, where little margin for error separates winner from loser. And in this case, a crack at a championship.

North Carolina's Casey Nogueira scored the game's only goal in the 83rd minute of a 1-0 win over Notre Dame on Friday night in the Women's Soccer College Cup semifinals at Texas A&M's Aggie Soccer Stadium.

It sent North Carolina (22-3-1) to the national championship game at noon Sunday, where it will meet unbeaten Stanford (25-0).

Lucy Bronze's run up the field after a setup pass from Tobin Heath drew the Notre Dame defense out. Bronze dumped the pass off to Nogueira, who one-timed the shot past Fighting Irish goalkeeper Nikki Weiss for the winner, which will give the Tar Heels a shot at yet another national title.

"I just saw Lucy going down the side," said Nogueira, who tapped home her 13th goal of the season. "(Coach) Anson (Dorrance) is always telling us to slash defenders. I just sprinted past my defender and she put it there. It was pretty much a 2-yard finish."

"Oh, it was 2," Dorrance responded after earlier saying the shot had come within 4 yards.

Give or take a yard, it doesn't really matter. What matters is North Carolina finished on a chance that had Dorrance saying Bronze "has paid us back in spades" for bringing her to Chapel Hill this year.

North Carolina outshot Notre Dame 26-8, besting the Irish 9-1 in shots on goal.

"They were the better team; there's no question about it," Notre Dame coach Randy Waldrum said of the Tar Heels, who beat the Fighting Irish in last year's championship. "It's never easy when you lose. We had a fantastic year. They deserved to win tonight."

North Carolina beat Notre Dame (21-4-1) twice this season, the earlier match a 6-0 whitewash in South Bend. But on this night, there wasn't much difference between the two, other than the gaping shot differential.

"I'd definitely say that we're going out proud tonight," said Notre Dame's Melissa Henderson. "Our team has overcome so many obstacles. The players have really stepped up and made some great things happen. The only thing that really hurts me is not getting them a national championship."

Weiss made six saves. North Carolina's Ashlyn Harris was forced to make just one, a header by Notre Dame Academic All-American Lauren Fowlkes in the 12th minute.

Then again, all it takes is one in this game, and Harris didn't give the Fighting Irish that chance. Now the Tar Heels live to see another day.

"To be able to have this opportunity and continue to hang out with this team is really special to me," Harris said. "It's something that's so important to me. My team has to come to play because it's not going to be easy. We will have to bring our `A' game. Stanford is a great team. Our squad will have to bring it, and we're prepared to do that."

Notre Dame had one last chance to send the game into overtime with a run up the field inside the last minute, but North Carolina defender Rachel Givan slid to steer the lead ball away.

"I just remember running down the field and knowing there were only a few seconds left, and I would do anything to get that ball out," Givan said. "I just slid and kicked the ball as hard as I could."

With it, she kicked the Tar Heels into the championship match.

"We're extremely excited to be in the national final," Dorrance said. "It's great to be alive in the NCAA tournament."

Alive and kicking.