It may not have been pretty, but the ACC got the final everyone wanted when No. 3 Maryland and No. 4 North Carolina advanced from their respective semifinals on Friday night at WakeMed Soccer Park in Carey, NC.
Maryland started off the evening by extracting revenge for last year's ACC tournament loss to Virginia with a 2-0 victory over the Cavaliers. Jason Herrick netted a brace while Terrapin goalkeeper Zac MacMath stopped a penalty kick just before the half.
"I think in games like this you have to have players who make plays," Maryland coach Sasho Cirovski said. "The Virginia, Maryland game doesn't always produce the most beautiful soccer. We only had four of five decent chances and they only had three or four decent chances and we made two of them and that was the difference."
After an even start that brought a few fantastic saves out of both keepers, Herrick made the most of one of those chances when Casey Townsend took a corner kick in the 37th minute. The ball rattled around in the box before falling to Herrick, who put enough power behind the close-range shot to give Virginia goalkeeper Diego Restrepo no real shot a save.
Virginia should have equalized just before halftime when Billy Cortes foolishly brought Felipe Liberos down inside the box and referee Brent Sorg pointed to the spot. Ari Dimas stepped up to take the penalty but Zac MacMath, who was named to the all ACC first team this week, was equal to the task and stuffed the Virginian midfielder with a diving stop to his right.
"I waited a little bit longer than I normally do," MacMath said. "But I guessed he was going to go right. I thought it was really important to our team to go into the half up 1-0."
Play was interrupted for around five minutes just after the restart when the sprinkler system unexpectedly switched on at WakeMed Park, dousing both benches and suspending play for nearly five minutes.
After the water was shut off, Maryland dominated possession in much the same way as the first half, but it took until the 71st minute for Herrick to complete his double and give the Terrapins some breathing space. A short free kick from the center circle found Taylor Kemp on the left flank. Kemp sent in a skidding cross which Herrick managed to redirect into the Virginia goal.
Maryland might be without John Stertzer's for Sunday's championship game. The sophomore forward suffered a horrific tackle on behalf of Mike Volk and Cirovski said he'll be evaluated tomorrow.
In the late kickoff, North Carolina needed a goalkeeping error to dispatch Boston College. The lone goal stood up, and the Tar Heels advanced to Sunday's championship game despite missing the offense that posted four against N.C. State on Wednesday night.
The first half was cagey, with both teams seemingly scared to take a risk offensively. Neither team managed even a shot on goal in the opening period.
"We had a hard time getting into any sort of rythm in the first half," UNC coach Elmar Bolowich said. "We weren't fast enough, we weren't going forward enough. We were more concerned with turning the ball over rather instead of generating a little more pressure on their goal. That needed to change in the second half."
The breakthrough came in the 55th minute when BC goalkeeper Justin Luthy spilled Kirk Urso's shot from distance. Enzo Martinez's initial shot deflected off the post but the sophomore midfielder managed to bury his own rebound.
"There are game where you just need that one break," Bolowich said. "Games where you just need that one opportunistic play and finish it off to break the ice."
"As soon as a saw Kirk wind up I took my chance and the keeper dropped it and luckily I was there to take the shot," Martinez said. "When it hit the post I tried to be as composed as possible. Luckily I took a touch and put it in the back of the net."
The gaffe left the Eagles shaken and they were unable to mount any sort of real threat to equalize. Their only real chance came when Edwin Worley's shot from just outside the box bent just outside Scott Goodwin's goal in the 76th minute. UNC managed to hold possession for the majority of the last 15 minutes to run out the clock.
"I thought we lost to a better team tonight," BC coach Ed Kelly said. "We didn't have our best game. They had us running quite a bit. It was a tough goal for us, they probably could have scored at other points during the game but that was tough."
North Carolina and Maryland will square off Sunday at 1. Maryland will be out for revenge against the Tar Heels, who dealt the Terrapins their only conference loss of the season. Both teams are riding unbeaten streaks in the double digits and have national title ambitions but desperately want an ACC title.
"That (the ACC championship) was one of our stated goals," Cirovski said. "We want to be in this game. We're going to value our opportunity on Sunday and we'll come ready to play."