In the 82nd minute on a chilly night in Cary, North Carolina, Jelani Pieters subbed back in for the 3rd ranked Tar Heels in their Sweet Sixteen matchup against SMU. Locked in a 1-0 defensive struggle against the Mustangs, the redshirt sophomore looked to provide some much needed offense as he had done all year.
Forty-six seconds later, there was Pieters, dancing and smiling in a circle of his teammates as he celebrated his 9th goal of the season and his second in as many tournament games.
Behind Pieters’ score and a goal in the 49th minute from midfielder Jack Skahan, the Tar Heels followed Pieters’ lead and danced into the Elite Eight following a 2-0 victory over SMU. For the 8th time in the past decade, Carolina has advanced into the quarterfinal stage of the NCAA tournament, the most among any school over that time.
From the opening, it was clear that North Carolina was in control of the game. Despite heading into halftime with the score knotted at 0-0, the Heels had taken five shots to the Mustang’s 0 and held a 4-0 advantage in corner kicks, but had ultimately been unable to find the back of the net, in part due to the play of the SMU goalie. Confident they would eventually break through the SMU defense, the Tar Heels continued to apply pressure once the second half began, while the Mustangs likewise retained their conservative approach.
The scoring finally began when Skahan crossed the ball into the box, attempting to set forward Alan Winn up for a header. The cross missed Winn’s head but bounced into the bottom corner of the net for a fortuitous goal, the type of goal that only comes about with the constant offensive pressure that the Tar Heels were applying. The sophomore’s second goal of the season put Carolina in the envious position of holding the first lead of the match; Coming in, the Heels were 13-0 this year when scoring first, a streak that they did not seem intent on breaking.
Following the goal by Skahan, the Mustangs were forced to become more aggressive, registering their first shot of the match in the 67th minute and visibly attempting to attack more. However, the change in strategy backfired in a big way as Pieters took a pass off the heel of midfielder Cam Lindley and was able to weave through the SMU defense to double Carolina’s lead. Pieters’ goal gave Lindley his 12th assist of the year, the most assists any player has had since Carlos Somoano took over head coaching duties in 2011.
When the final seconds ticked off the clock, the entire Carolina team gathered in front of the bleachers to celebrate along with the hometown fans. Cheering, laughing, throwing water in the air, and, yes, dancing all ensued, as a joyous team survived to play one more game at WakeMed, their home away from home this year. As they prep to face Fordham (who dispatched rival Duke in PKs), the young but talented group of Tar Heels has their sights set on the Final Four in Philadelphia. With any luck, they’ll keep on dancing.
Story and photos by Caleb Jones