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West Virginia and USC act like they've been there, advance to Women's College Cup final

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West Virginia and USC to face off in Women's College Cup final (4:03)

Julie Foudy and Jenn Hildreth of espnW talk about the semifinal games that West Virginia and USC won and how they will stack up against each other in the Women's College Cup championship. (4:03)

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- No one left in the Women's College Cup has any championship experience.

That won't stop either USC or West Virginia from experiencing a championship Sunday inside Avaya Stadium.

It certainly didn't stop the Trojans and Mountaineers from earning the right to try.

Friday's national semifinals were perhaps best summed up by the fact that the first coach to wonder aloud if a team felt "final four jitters" was the one who has won this tournament 21 times in the past. No such questions dogged No. 1 West Virginia after a 1-0 win over No. 2 North Carolina, the aforementioned Anson Dorrance dynasty, or No. 2 USC after its 1-0 win over No. 2 Georgetown.

While USC won a national championship nine years ago, neither the head coaches nor the players involved on either side of Sunday's final have any experience in such a setting. But in semifinals with such slim margins of error, both teams showed experience shapes in many ways.

In a physical opening game in which chances had been decidedly scarce for both teams, an ill-timed foul by North Carolina gave West Virginia a free kick near its opponent's end line in the 74th minute. Served toward the opposite post, the ball fell amongst a scrum. Several touches failed to produce a clearance for the Tar Heels, and the last attempt rolled to the feet of Michaela Abam just inside the 18-yard box. West Virginia's leading scorer each of her first three seasons, Abam dragged the ball behind her with a deft touch, then let loose a left-footed shot that Dorrance accurately noted "screamed" into the top corner.

Abam was raised on stories of Cameroonian soccer legend Roger Milla (who led a team with no World Cup experience to a draw against mighty Italy in 1982, presaging future glory) by parents from that nation. So upon scoring in the College Cup, she ran to the corner flag and broke out Milla's signature celebratory dance. Neither the shot nor the dance hinted of any jitters.

Goals have become precious in this postseason. All four quarterfinals were settled by the same 1-0 score as Friday's semifinals, the first time that happened in tournament history. Abam's chance was West Virginia's best, and she didn't let it go to waste.

Excluding the first year of the NCAA tournament, teams were 7-19-1 in College Cup debuts entering this year's semifinals. That included a 2-8-0 mark this century.

Yet West Virginia isn't a typical newcomer. The Mountaineers aren't here at the end of a Cinderella run. They are the last No. 1 seed standing, the only team in the country that hasn't lost multiple games (a fact its opponent ensured when it upset No. 1 seed South Carolina a week earlier).

They haven't been here before, but it helps them act as if they have when two captains have been on an Olympic medal podium. And when Kadeisha Buchanan and Ashley Lawrence have played with a nation watching, including 54,027 in the stands for a World Cup quarterfinal.

"I even think last year, when we [lost] in that Elite Eight game at Penn State, I think some of us got a little bit nervous and a little unsettled," West Virginia coach Nikki Izzo-Brown said. "I think experience, obviously [Buchanan] and Ashley bring so much at the highest stages, so we can feed off of them as our captains and our leaders. [Midfielder] Carly Black has been [around] for five years, she recognizes that. ... The leadership is a piece that potentially we didn't have last year or the years before."

North Carolina had chances after Abam's goal. But those chances came only when it threw caution to the wind and pushed forward to try and equalize. It had chances only when those chances came with a season riding on their success. Perhaps that added weight played its part when freshmen Bridgette Andrzejewski and Madison Schultz leaned a little too far back on chances and blasted balls over the crossbar in the closing minutes.

When West Virginia lost starting right back Bianca St. Georges to an ankle injury early in the second half, the talented sophomore carried off without putting any weight on either leg, Lawrence relocated from the midfield to play on the back line and substitute Vanessa Flores entered the midfield. The game was still scoreless at the time, and it wasn't as if the Mountaineers were knocking on the door with great opportunities. But rather than fret about moving a world-class player farther from the opponent's goal, West Virginia used the plan that worked in the regular season.

"Obviously it's a very difficult move for us to lose [Lawrence] in midfield and that constant threat that she provides for us," Izzo-Brown said. "But it was something we needed to do to make sure that we could stay in this game and be effective. We have other players we have called on -- I thought Vanessa Flores did an incredible job, as Ashley Woolpert did and Carla [Portillo]. It's difficult to make a call like that, but Ashley's done that for us in numerous games."

In that moment, like the game as a whole, West Virginia trusted its own experience.

Scoring chances were marginally more plentiful in the second semifinal between USC and Georgetown, but the final product was no easier to locate. The game was scoreless at halftime, a fortunate development for a USC team that was arguably outplayed during those first 45 minutes. Georgetown proved its own College Cup debut no fluke, but the Hoyas couldn't score.

In addition to some tangible tactical tweaks to break up Georgetown's spatial dominance, USC players heard a halftime message that coach Keidane McAlpine summed up in one word: Breathe.

Several of the players who were a part of USC's win Friday were around when the team missed the NCAA tournament entirely in 2013. That completed the program's fall from grace after its 2007 title and precipitated the coaching change that brought McAlpine from Washington State.

"The first thing with the program that we had to do was learn how to compete again and get back to the national tournament," McAlpine said. "That was year one."

The past two years were about playing the kind of competition, even beyond the Pac-12, that teams must master if they hope to compete for a championship. That culminated a month ago in a setting that couldn't match the stakes of the College Cup but still dwarfed the atmosphere in San Jose on Friday in front of a crowd that numbered barely 4,000 on a workday afternoon and with little time to publicize the event following its relocation from Cary, North Carolina, because of that state's anti-LGBTQ legislation.

That was when USC lost 1-0 to UCLA and perhaps cost itself a No. 1 seed.

"There were 8,500 people there," McAlpine said. "It was a rivalry game. There were a lot of things going on, a lot of distractions that could take us away from the job at hand. Losing that game, I think, helped prepare us to understand what the intensity needs to be, what the environment feels like of a game like this. And that game helped propel us today."

So it was that in the 60th minute, as USC began to take control of the game's flow, when Morgan Andrews gathered a pass on the edge of the 18-yard box and chipped a picture perfect delivery to Katie Johnson. Her back to goal, Johnson spun over her right shoulder, separated from the defender behind her and beat the keeper with a low shot toward the post. If it ceded artistic merit to Abam's goal, it wasn't by all that much.

Credit to Andrews, the senior who transferred from Notre Dame, for finding Johnson, a fifth-year senior on the field only because of a redshirt season a year ago due to injury.

Experience comes in many forms.

Pleased with how his team played in its own debut, the unmistakable pain of the result aside, Georgetown coach Dave Nolan said he told his players after the game to look around them.

"There's worse places to finish," Nolan said.

Indeed, there is no experience quite like it for a college soccer player. But that wasn't a prerequisite for success Friday.