No. 17 Virginia field hockey took the field in the final of the 2021 Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament against No. 8 North Carolina Sunday. The Cavaliers (12-8, 3-3 ACC), who were the fifth seed in the tournament, lost 1-0 to the third-seed Tar Heels (13-6, 4-2 ACC), who won their fifth straight ACC Championship.
Virginia was unable to find the back of the net against North Carolina but certainly came out of the gates hungry for a goal, with graduate student back Makayla Gallen firing off a shot less than a minute into the game. Ultimately, both offenses were stymied in the scoreless first half and combined for just five total shots.
The Tar Heels finally broke through the Cavalier defense – which has been key to Virginia’s success all season long – in the third quarter behind ACC Offensive Player of the Year and senior forward Erin Matson’s goal off of a penalty corner.
Later, about a third of the way through the fourth quarter, the Cavaliers appeared to have notched the game-tying goal when senior striker Annie McDonough took the ball along the baseline and sent a cross in to junior midfielder Adele Iacobucci, who deflected the pass into the net. Unfortunately for Virginia, video review ruled that McDonough had stepped out of bounds before the pass and the goal was overturned.
In the final minutes of the game, the Cavaliers went into an all-out attack by pulling freshman goalkeeper Tyler Kennedy to put another offensive player on the field, but the Tar Heel defense held on for the win.
The game was extremely hard-fought, with Virginia actually ending up with a 5-4 advantage on shots, and while the result did not go the Cavaliers’ way, there were still several positive takeaways. The first being that – in their past two meetings – Virginia has pushed the three-time NCAA Tournament defending champion North Carolina team to the final whistle. Before the nail-biting ACC Championship title game, in the final game of the regular season it took nearly a full overtime period for the Tar Heels to overcome the Cavaliers by way of a 3-2 scoreline.
Additionally, three Virginia players were named to the All-ACC Tournament team. Senior back Amber Ezechiels, along with graduate student backs Gallen and Rachel Robinson, were awarded the All-ACC honors.
Finally, this is the first time any of the players on the team have played for the title, as it is the first ACC title game the Cavaliers have reached since Virginia won its first-ever ACC title back in 2016, when the Cavaliers defeated North Carolina 4-2. Virginia’s young core was integral to this year’s title push, and this young experience will bode well for the future as the Cavaliers try to return to the championship game next season.
“We said to have no regrets and we have no regrets,” Coach Michele Madison said. “It’s always great to have an opportunity to win a championship, but in a championship game, you have to put it away. I am proud of how we have played the last few weeks of the season, and of our wins against Syracuse, Boston College and Louisville. I feel this is a team that deserves to be in the NCAA Tournament.”
Madison was absolutely right, as just a few hours later on Selection Sunday the Cavaliers were rewarded with one of eight at-large bids for the 2021 NCAA Field Hockey Championship. Virginia’s clutch wins over top-25 teams Boston College and Louisville in the quarterfinals and semifinals of the ACC Tournament, respectively, were indicative of how well the Cavaliers have been playing all season. Additionally, the Cavaliers have several wins against top-25 teams on their resume.
Virginia now turns its attention to its first NCAA Tournament game, where the Cavaliers will travel to face off against a strong Maryland team Friday. Virginia played Maryland to a nail-biting overtime 2-1 loss earlier in the season, so this game will certainly be one to watch as both teams boast impressive defenses and a slew of top-25 wins. The Cavaliers will again rely on Kennedy and their defense as they look to make a run in this year’s NCAA Tournament, their 25th trip to the competition.