CARY, N.C. -- When the four best teams in college soccer gather for a winner-take-all weekend, there isn't much margin for error. As it turned out in Friday's semifinals, there wasn't much margin of any kind.
With a 1-0 win against Stanford in the first semifinal at a sold-out WakeMed Soccer Park, Notre Dame moved within a game of becoming the only program other than North Carolina to win at least three national championships in women's soccer and the first program other than the Chapel Hill juggernaut to finish with an unblemished record.
Yet as dominant as the Fighting Irish sound when bracketed by all those potential honorifics, it was the way the nation's top-ranked team confronted its own vulnerabilities against Stanford that granted passage through to Sunday's final (ESPN2, 2 p.m. ET). So it's fitting that, after knocking off UCLA 1-0 in the night's second game, North Carolina will be the opponent.
In women's college soccer, the Tar Heels have long been everyone's vulnerability.
Notre Dame claimed the early lead against Stanford by flashing the skill that carried the Irish to Cary in the first place. Rose Augustin's throw found Melissa Henderson about 10 yards from the end line on the right side of the field in Stanford's end. A gifted freshman forward who made waves this season with 17 goals, Henderson deftly settled the ball out of the air -- but instead of firing a shot at goal, she took a dribble toward the middle of the field and sent a perfect cross to classmate Courtney Barg in front of the net. Barg's finish past Kira Maker at the far post in the 15th minute gave Henderson just her second assist of the season.
There aren't many teams in the country with multiple freshmen possessing the kind of skill the sequence required, let alone the poise to employ it on such a stage.
But for most of the night, Notre Dame's offense found itself relegated to the shadows. Stanford appeared to have a slight edge in play before the goal, and once the Cardinal found themselves playing from behind, the game turned into an hour-long, hockey-style power play. For just the third time all season, Notre Dame finished with fewer shots than an opponent, and Stanford's 20-12 margin in attempts marked the largest margin any team has created against it. Harassed and challenged on a nearly constant basis, the Irish defense bent like a Slinky on a staircase. But unlike the toy's typical fate, it never broke.
"They've been great all year," Waldrum said of his back line. "I think it's something that, we've been so good offensively, I think that a lot of people have overlooked our back line. But I think Carrie Dew and Jess Schuveiller have been great up the middle and Elise Weber and Julie Scheidler [on the outside], and then of course tonight, Kelsey [Lysander] was fantastic in goal for us, a couple of really big saves to keep us in the lead."
North Carolina's win was only slightly more conclusive. The Tar Heels controlled the tempo in the first half, and even if the penalty awarded on a foul in the box by UCLA's Erin Hardy looked, in the kindest of terms, like a close call, the right team had a 1-0 lead at halftime -- thanks to Yael Averbuch's goal off a penalty in the 41st minute. But from the moment North Carolina keeper Ashlyn Harris saved a point-blank shot from Kara Lang just more than two minutes into the second half, it was clear the Bruins weren't going away without a fight.
"The interesting thing about soccer is, you know, when someone sees a score line of 1-0, the presumption is we shut them out," UNC coach Anson Dorrance said. "We didn't really -- I mean, just on the scoreboard. But they created several great chances; they could easily have finished one of those. Sometimes I look at these games and go, 'There but for the grace of God goes I,' because the chance we had goes in and the ones they had miss."
Now the two teams left standing meet for the third time in just more than a year, with the Tar Heels looking for their first win in that span after posting a 9-2-2 record against the Fighting Irish from their first meeting in 1993 through the championship game in 2006 on the same field in Cary where Sunday's game will be played. Portland, Santa Clara and UCLA all have cases as the chief rival to North Carolina's throne, but Notre Dame might now occupy the top spot on the list, an accomplishment Dorrance appreciates.
"Obviously, the reputation of the school is going to put them in an extraordinary recruiting position, and not just in women's soccer but in all sports," Dorrance said. "And so they've always been in a great position to attract quality recruits. And I think what Randy [Waldrum] has done with this group recently is he's stringing together a series of great recruiting classes every year. So there's no real drop-off to his program. One year to the next, his teams are just superb."
It wasn't clear at the end of the night Friday that the two best teams came away with victories. But given a field like the one on hand this year, such indisputable clarity was already an unlikely outcome. What was clear at the end of the night -- what's always clear at the end of the semifinals -- is that two teams found ways to win. And in what can't be a coincidence, more often than not, those two teams are North Carolina and Notre Dame.
"If you're asking me who I prefer to play, I prefer if they'd just give us the trophy and not make us play," Waldrum joked before the second game. "Is that OK? Can we do that?"
Fortunately for fans, Notre Dame and North Carolina will settle it on the field.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.