By JOHN BOSCHINI
The National Championship is headed back to North Carolina in one way or another.
It was a long yet dramatic night in Hoover, Alabama as both UNC and Charlotte booked their place in the final with the help of penalty kicks. Charlotte was never able to break down Creighton's record-breaking defense but were vastly superior in the penalty kick shootout that followed a dull 0-0 draw. It was a completely different scenario in the late game as North Carolina came from behind twice to tie UCLA as both team's fired off chance after chance.
Gavin Dawson, was the hero for Cinderella Charlotte as the backup goalkeeper came up big for the second consecutive game. The "penalty kick specialist" saved one spot kick and saw another fly over his crossbar in a 4-1 shootout victory. Issac Cowles sent Creighton goalkeeper Brian Holt the wrong way for the clinching penalty kick.
Enzo Martinez saw his bullet from long-range deflected on to the post but Billy Schuler forced the ball over the line to equalize with five minutes left as UNC completed a thrilling comeback. Scott Goodwin, who won three penalty-kick shootouts on the way to last season's College Cup, came up big again with two saves in a 3-1 victory for the Tar Heels. Ben Speas put the final penalty into the side-netting to give North Carolina a shot at their first title since 2001.
The framework was kind to the 49ers in the early game with Charlotte seeing an attempted clearance clang off their own crossbar within the first 20 minutes. It was one of the few real chances of an opening half that saw Charlotte put 11 men behind the ball and didn't give Creighton much time in possession. Starting goalkeeper Klay Davis was put to the test again but a fingertip save was enough to deny Andrew Ribeiro's headed attempt as the first-half wound down.
Charlotte came out of the break with more confidence and asked a few questions of Creighton's defense. The 49ers needed the crossbar once again as Finlay saw his point-blank header come back off the bar and Jace Peters skied the rebound. The 49ers had a couple chances of their own but Giuseppi Gentile fluffed his wide-open shot 10 yards from goal with less than 10 minutes remaining.
Neither team produced many chances in the two overtime periods as fatigue set in. Smith tested Creighton's goal in the first overtime period but Holt made a nice save from a tight angle. Despite the penalty kick loss, Creighton finishes the season with an NCAA record 0.20 goals against average. This was only second time all season Charlotte failed to score a goal.
It was a completely different story in the second game of the night as UCLA and UNC traded offensive blows. Ryan Hollingshead opened the scoring with a shot from well outside the box that skimmed the underside of the crossbar and left Goodwin with no chance. The Bruins took the lead into the halftime despite North Carolina rattling the woodwork twice in the opening 45 minutes.
The scores were level around the hour mark when Speas sliced through UCLA's defense and found the waiting head of Robbie Lovejoy. The sophomore made no mistake from less than three yards out and the goal at his mercy. UCLA came out with a vengeance following the TV timeout midway through the half and were soon back in front. Alabama native Chandler Hoffman sent Kelyn Rowe through with a perfectly weighted ball and Rowe chipped Goodwin with the outside of his foot.
North Carolina threw caution to the wind and was rewarded as time was winding down. Martinez struck a speculative shot from more than 30 yards out and forced Brian Rowe to tip the ball onto the inside of the post. The rebound skidded in front of goal where Schuler slid in to bury the ball into the back of the net.
Overtime didn't see many chances until the final seconds when senior Kirk Urso forced a finger-tip save from Rowe as time expired.
The penalty shootout was disastrous for UCLA, as Scott Goodwin made a pair of saves and UCLA saw another shot sent wide. Speas converted the final attempt for the Tar Heels to clinch their place in Sunday's Final.
North Carolina and Charlotte meet in the third intrastate final in the past decade and the first outside California. UNC and Charlotte meet at 4pm on Sunday (ESPNU, ESPN3.com) to decide a national champion.