Iowa field hockey falls to top-ranked North Carolina in NCAA Tournament semifinals

Cody Goodwin
Hawk Central

For the second straight year, North Carolina put an end to the Iowa field hockey team's season.

The Hawkeyes fell to the top-ranked Tar Heels, 3-0, in the NCAA Tournament semifinals on Friday in Chapel Hill. Iowa ended the 2021 season at 12-6 overall. North Carolina, the two-time defending NCAA champions, advanced to Sunday's final with an 18-1 record.

This was a classic case of an unstoppable force against an immovable object.

North Carolina has been NCAA Division I field hockey's Goliath over the past three seasons, compiling a staggering 64-1 overall record during that span. The Tar Heels entered Friday's semifinal having scored 58 goals in 18 games, or 3.2 per game.

Iowa, though, prides itself on defense. The fourth-ranked Hawkeyes had allowed just 11 goals all season and posted eight shutouts in their 12 victories. Only Michigan, who will play Louisville in Friday's second semifinal, allowed fewer goals (8) in as many games.

In the end, North Carolina's offensive prowess prevailed.

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The Tar Heels broke a scoreless tie midway through the second quarter, when freshman Katie Dixon scored her first career goal. That gave North Carolina a 1-0 advantage at halftime — which was extended due to a weather delay.

Iowa head coach Lisa Cellucci stands on the sideline during a Big Ten Conference quarterfinal field hockey match, Wednesday, April 21, 2021, at Grant Field in Iowa City, Iowa.

In the third, the Tar Heels tacked on two more, from another freshman, Mia Leonhardt, then again from star junior Erin Matson, to go up 3-0. That was also Matson's 27th goal of the season. Iowa, as a team, finished the year with 26 goals.

Both Leonhardt and Matson scored out of corner opportunities. North Carolina finished with just four corner opportunities and nine shots for the game. Iowa tallied seven total shots on goal, but had just two through the first three quarters.

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The Hawkeyes created plenty of shot opportunities at the beginning of the fourth quarter, putting five shots on goal in a 9-minute span. But North Carolina goalie Amanda Hendry saved them all, and finished with seven total saves for her sixth shutout of the year.

Iowa's Nikki Freeman (8) runs to the ball during a Big Ten Conference quarterfinal field hockey match against Maryland, Wednesday, April 21, 2021, at Grant Field in Iowa City, Iowa.

As such, the Tar Heels will attempt to win a third straight NCAA title on Sunday. They've won eight in program history and are an incredible 20-5 in national semifinal games all-time.

The Hawkeyes were making their 12th Final Four appearance in program history, and their first since 2008. It was a step forward after losing to the Tar Heels in last year's quarterfinal round, 2-1.

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Iowa coach Lisa Cellucci has said that her entire team is coming back next season. That includes top goal-scorer Maddy Murphy, and talented goal-keeper Grace McGuire, with talent of all ages surrounding them at virtually every position.

North Carolina is the standard by which every other Division I field hockey program should be measured, but these Hawkeyes aren't going away.

Cody Goodwin covers wrestling and high school sports for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.