WILDCATS 4, TAR HEELS 1

DURHAM, NH – Don’t corner a wounded animal. The University of North Carolina (UNC) Tar Heels (11-7-2, 4-4-0) learned that lesson the hard way Sunday afternoon at Wildcat Stadium. The University of New Hampshire (UNH) Wildcats (17-1-2) were licking their wounds from a 1-0 defeat to Vermont in the America East (AE) Championship before the second-round NCAA Tournament contest. The Wildcats took out all the pain from that loss on the Tar Heels, sinking their teeth into the visitors in a 4-1 thrashing.  

UNH got all the work done early, putting the game away in the first half. Graduate student Bridger Hansen undoubtedly had the goal of the game to open up the scoring Sunday afternoon. The fifth-year defender earned himself a spot on the SportsCenter Top-10 with a bicycle kick in the 23rd minute. Hansen hurdled a fallen Tar Heel, lined up his shot, sent the ball into the top corner and sent the stadium into bedlam.  

Hansen isn’t who most would pick to score a top-shelf goal for the ‘Cats. He himself said he was surprised he pulled it off.  

“It totally caught me by surprise,” said Hansen. “It literally just fell to me. There was the guy in front of me, and I hopped over him and then just dropped right to me. So worked out nicely. I don’t know if I could do it again.”  

New Hampshire’s momentum didn’t last long, however. UNC refused to roll over and returned fire with a goal of their own just a minute later.  

Hansen acknowledged the concession caught the team off guard.  

“It was a little bit discouraging that they scored so quickly following that,” said Hansen. “But I think it fired us up enough that we answered quickly and kept going.” 

Fifth-year forward and captain Jacob Gould echoed his teammate’s sentiment on the equalizer and commended his team’s ability to put it behind them quickly.  

“I think only for a minute or two we were a little bit upset about it,” said Gould. “But we realized the game leading up to this point we’ve been on the gas pedal first, and we had a lot going for us already. I think our confidence from the beginning again, just pushed through that adversity.”  

UNH had their foot back on the gas in no time. Junior midfielder Rory O’Driscoll capped off an impeccable team goal with a low header in the 37th minute. Three minutes later, it was Gould on the scoresheet with a close-range volley to make it 3-1. The goals were crisp, clinical and a welcome sight for UNH, who had been shut out by Vermont only a week prior.  

Gould said the team knew they weren’t themselves offensively versus Vermont and emphasized their preparation to sharpen their attacking play.  

“Leading up to the game preparation, that was big,” said Gould on the team’s offensive emphasis. “But really, it was a mindset thing. The belief in yourself and the confidence to go forward with passion and really go out in that and attack rather than assume that the game is going to come to us. I think that was a big thing for us tonight was attacking first.” 

UNH attacked first early and often. The final Wildcat effort to find the back of the net came from grad student Johann von Knebel. The native of Germany pounced on a mistake from UNC’s backline and sprinted half the length of the field with only the keeper to beat. Players can often overthink their finishes when they have too much time on the ball. But von Knebel’s head was cool, calm and clinical. He slotted home UNH’s fourth of the half with just six seconds to spare, and the Wildcats went into the locker room up three.  

The second half had a couple more chances for UNH and some last gasp efforts from UNC, but no one else managed to change the score sheet. The differences between this performance and UNH’s previous ones are too numerous to name, but the biggest was surely the impact of players returning from injury. Senior Chris Pinkham was back in the left-back position and supplied an assist along with several long throw-ins that unsettled the Tar Heel’s defense. Grad student Victor Menudier didn’t get a goal up top but was wreaking havoc on UNC’s defenders whenever he was on the pitch. Sophomore midfielder Yannick Bright, who left the AE Championship at the half with an injury, was also back and better than ever.  

Head coach Marc Hubbard was pleased with how his team played and gave the nod to those returning from injury.  

“Having Chris [Pinkham] and Victor [Menudier] back, I think maybe gave UNC a little bit of a surprise factor as to who these guys are, and they both did really great today,” said Hubbard. “But we know that guys can come off the bench and still keep the same level, if not raise it at times if the other guys aren’t doing the job, and that’s been a testament to our team all year long.” 

UNH had the night to celebrate their second-ever trip to the Sweet-16. A late-night win by Oregon State (13-2-3, 7-1-2) confirmed the Wildcats would travel across the country to take on the No. 1 team in the nation. It will now be a week of preparation for what looks to be the biggest game in program history. The ‘Cats look to upset the Beavers Sunday, Nov. 28 at 9 p.m. ET.  

Photo courtesy of China Wong