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Thursday, September 28, 2023

It was an ugly ending to a hard-fought game for the Gators.

No. 5 Florida logged its first loss of the season Sunday, falling 2-0 to two-time NCAA defending champion North Carolina.

Florida played very close with No. 1 UNC the entire match but couldn’t hold off the strength and athleticism of the Tar Heels.

“The best part about this game is our team is mad that we lost,” coach Becky Burleigh said. “We should be. We weren’t trying to survive this game; we were trying to take it to them and I like that attitude of this team a lot. Our players never backed down. I thought they physically stepped up to the challenge and that’s a good sign.”

However, the Gators’ tough, persistent play was overshadowed by an unnecessary discrepancy when the officials waited too long to stop play after midfielder Tahnai Annis was t-boned by a Tar Heels defender and remained down on the pitch for more than a minute. The scuffle led to a late red card for Florida associate coach Vic Campbell and a yellow card for Burleigh.

“There was no attempt to play the ball by the UNC defender whatsoever,” Burleigh said. “The referee wouldn’t stop play which led to Vic and I getting booked when we were just trying to protect our player.”

North Carolina capitalized on scoring opportunities in the second half. The Tar Heels scored their first goal off a shot from UNC’s Alyssa Hawkins, which appeared to be saved by UF defender Kat Williamson but was ruled in by the line judge.

“I don’t think they had one legit goal all game,” senior Ashlee Elliott said. “I think they were all fluke goals, and we really prevented them from getting in the box. We all did really well with staying connected and communicating, but I think we handled them really well.”

Florida finished a very choppy first half with nine fouls and had more offside calls than shots on goal. North Carolina’s back three did a superb job at closing gaps and limiting scoring opportunities for the Gators. The Tar Heels’ defense shut down UF’s leading scorer and captain McKenzie Barney, holding her to zero shot attempts.

“As soon as we started to stay composed I think we gave UNC a run for their money,” Elliott said. “We kept them on their toes the whole game and considering we had a double-overtime game on Friday I think we did well coming back against the No. 1 team.”

But the Gators know they need to put the loss behind them with conference play looming.

 “Next weekend is ultimately more important than this one because we start SEC competition,” said Burleigh “As great as this weekend was for us, we just have to take what we learned from it into SEC play, but these are the games where the hardware is on the line.”

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