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Swanson: UCLA women’s soccer rallies, beats North Carolina for NCAA title

It’s not a championship if it doesn’t come down to the very last thread of the wire, not if you’re a soccer team from L.A.

On Nov. 5, LAFC won its first MLS title by turning the championship match against Philadelphia Union into a Hollywood drama, winning on penalty kicks after Gareth Bale’s thunderous 128th-minute equalizing header tied the match, 3-3.

Exactly one month later, the UCLA women’s soccer team was like: WE CAN DO THAT TOO.

The Bruins claimed their program’s second NCAA championship Monday – and their school’s 120th – by beating perennial power North Carolina, 3-2, in a wild match scripted by the same screenwriters who brought you LAFC’s fireworks.

On a cool night in Cary, N.C., the Bruins (22-2-1) became the first team in Women’s College Cup history to erase a two-goal deficit to win the national title.

And those two goals to tie it were late arriving, coming with the vise tightening, off Lexi Wright’s right foot in the 80th minute and then, with the door all but slammed shut, off Reilyn Turner’s thunderous equalizing header in the final minute.

Final minute? Final seconds!

With just 16 ticks to go, Turner scored over a heap of bodies, converting a stellar corner kick delivered by Glendora freshman Ally Lemos to tie the match at 2-2.

The Bruins didn’t need penalty kicks. Nah, Santa Ana’s Maricarmen Reyes, a graduate midfielder who plays for the Mexico women’s national football team, deposited a rebound off an Ally Cook shot to give UCLA the lead and then victory in the 107th minute.

It was, according to Anson Dorrance, UNC’s legendary coach who has 21 NCAA championships and a Women’s World Cup title to his credit, “one of the greatest finals I’ve ever been involved in.”

“We never, ever, ever, ever give up,” said Turner, a junior from Aliso Viejo, on the postgame Zoom, turning to Reyes as she shared a quick exchange they’d had with their championship aspirations on life support, before Lemos’ corner.

“Mary looked a little sad,” Turner recalled. “And I was like, ‘Mary, we are not done yet. Let’s get this in.’”

Now that they finished the job they set out to this season, now they’re done.

I visited with the Bruins in September after they’d traveled to North Carolina for a tough two-game road trip and come back with upset victories over the Tar Heels and Duke, then the Nos. 1 and 2 teams in the nation.

There was something about these women that struck me. A look in their eyes. A confidence that matched the on-pitch talent evident in all the highlights I’d seen in the pair of tone-setting victories – the one against North Carolina echoing on Monday, because similarly, the Bruins rallied behind late goals from Wright and Turner.

UCLA had lost in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament the season before, and anyone could sense that still stung. They expected more and plainly said so because they knew there’s too much talent in their program drawing so heavily from the Southern California hotbed of women’s soccer for their team to have just one NCAA championship.

“I know,” Turner said then. “It’s crazy.”

When Monday ended, they had two. And they seem primed to collect a whole set under Margueritte Aozasa, who became the only first-year head coach in NCAA women’s soccer history to win a national title, as well as the fourth woman head coach and second Asian-American head coach to do it.

“Our new coaching staff really kind of took over and brought this team together,” Turner said. “Taught us discipline, teamwork, hard work until the very last second.”

Aozasa might have had her players – and the UCLA administration – believing, but she acknowledged Monday night that she wasn’t actually as assured as she let on.

“I did talk a big talk in my interview, but I wasn’t sure,” said Aozasa, whose cool demeanor on the sideline melted when the Bruins’ heroics triggered a deluge of tears – and then, after the final whistle blew, a water cooler shower.

“The whole country knew what this team was capable of, on paper. We’ve always been one of the better teams … so I knew that I, stepping in, would have the tools to work with. But obviously, I couldn’t have predicted how everything was going to come together.”

Moreover, Aozasa put pieces in the right places.

In another echo of the Bruins’ early season victories in North Carolina, when they completely changed their shape the day before they faced Duke, the Bruins made a key mid-game adjustment Monday.

After Avery Patterson scored both goals in the second half for North Carolina (20-5-1), both off far-post headers, Aozasa switched things up. It was time to take on a more aggressive shape, so she went from a 4-3-3 to a 3-4-3, despite the Bruins never having practiced it.

“Our staff likes to take risks, because the thing I hate is to go down 2-0 and not change anything,” Aozasa said. “So we went for it.”

The payoff: Another happy Hollywood ending.

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