NORFOLK, Va. -- At the start of the NCAA field hockey tournament, there seemed to be little doubt that North Carolina -- winners of 20 consecutive games and rewarded with the No. 1 seed -- was the top team in the nation.
The ACC champions boast Kelsey Kolojejchick, almost surely the program's first four-time All-American; midfielder Charlotte Craddock, easily the best underclassman in the country; and coach Karen Shelton, with 550 career victories in 32 seasons.
But when the seconds ticked down Sunday afternoon, Princeton (21-1) left no doubt about who is No. 1. The Tigers won the program's first national title by rallying three times to stun a veteran Tar Heels team 3-2 at Old Dominion University's L.R. Hill Sports Complex.
Princeton is the first non-ACC team to win the NCAA title since Michigan in 2001.
"It definitely has not sunk in; it will take a while to process not only the game but the season," Princeton coach Kristen Holmes-Winn said. "The Tigers represent everything to me that is pure in intercollegiate athletics. They're students foremost, but what you saw on the field is just incredible competitors. I'm so proud of what they do on the field and off the field. I'm so happy they have the opportunity to feel what it's like to be No. 1."
Amanda Bird's penalty stroke -- the first against North Carolina (23-2) this year -- broke a 2-2 tie at 59:52. Princeton was awarded the stroke after Samantha Travers tripped up Michelle Cesan en route to the cage, setting up the opportunity for Bird, who turned to her teammates with a sigh of relief after the goal.
"It's always super, super nerve-wracking to take penalty corners," said the bubbly Bird, a junior from Vancouver, British Columbia. "It probably wasn't the best stroke I've ever taken in my life. But it's on cage, and I got some decent power behind it. I was wigged. But it was the game-winning goal. How can I not be happy about it?"
An Ivy League team besting an ACC stalwart for the national title is a fabled outcome made more so by the obstacles Princeton faced going into its first national title game since 1998 against nine Tar Heel seniors who have been there all four of their years. Princeton starting midfielder Katie Reinprecht awoke to a churning stomach followed by a vomiting bout that lasted until shortly before game time.
"It was a little scary at 4 a.m.," Reinprecht said. "I knew I was going to play; it was just a matter of whether or not I'd have enough fluids in me to play an entire game. We looked into getting an IV, but I took some medicine that settled my stomach."
Minutes before the national anthem, Tigers freshman Teresa Benvenuti -- whose overtime penalty stroke lifted Princeton over two-time defending champion NCAA Maryland on Friday -- pulled her right hamstring. Reduced to tears, she tried to overcome it again at halftime but remained on the sidelines.
"I overstretched in warm-ups," said Benvenuti, an ardent cheerleader with an icebag attached to her right leg during a game that UNC led twice, the final time at 46:03.
When Molly Goodman, the first sub off the bench for Princeton, limped to the sideline after a nasty takedown, it seemed that maybe the stars had aligned for North Carolina to win its seventh national title.
"To beat Carolina full strength is a huge challenge," Holmes-Winn said. "To be able to do it assessing the depth on the bench the way we did is a product of this team and the hard work they put in day in and day out to compete on this stage."
Craddock, whose hat trick over Syracuse on Friday was part of a 6-1 rout, powered a shot past keeper Christina Maida in the 12th minute for a 1-0 North Carolina lead. Princeton didn't have a shot on goal at that point, but answered five minutes later behind NCAA scoring leader Kathleen Sharkey. Her 38th goal of the season tied the game at 1-1, where it would stand at the break.
With Bird sidelined by a card, Craddock set up Katie Plyler, whose deflected shot bounced in the cage. Tar Heels fans rattled the metal bleachers, chanting "Let's go, Heels!" in celebrating a 2-1 advantage that lasted until the 57th minute when Allison Evans gathered a rebound to score from the left post.
Three minutes later, Bird produced the game-winner, but Carolina, a team denied the past two years by Maryland by identical 3-2 scores, clawed in an effort to create overtime. The Heels played with an empty cage for the final eight minutes, creating repeated opportunities for themselves to which Princeton responded with a relentless defense that ranks No. 1 in the nation.
Sharkey -- one of four players who spent last year with the national team, along with Julia and Katie Reinprecht and Cesan -- moved to midfield to handle the extra pressure. Princeton's all-time leading scorer reminded herself the game was not over despite the exuberance of the Tigers' faithful.
"The last few minutes were very, very slow," Sharkey said. "You're trying to take your time on the free hits. But everyone was just so focused in those last few minutes. We realized we were so close to winning the national championship, and we weren't going to let the opportunity slip away."
The Tar Heels had one corner left in the final minute, but Craddock's errant shot was a wide aerial.
Princeton celebrated with a giant dog pile in front of the North Carolina goal with Holmes-Winn's children -- Parker, 5, and Tenley, 4 -- the last to join the mob. Their fans shook the seats, twirling anything orange they can find. Stuffed tigers made their way to the real Tigers, celebrating their first win against North Carolina in the postseason.
For North Carolina, falling short in the title game for a third consecutive year was disheartening. Leaving their national runner-up trophies sitting on the turf, the Tar Heels lined up facing their fans while the school's pep band played the alma mater.
Shelton lauded her team for four years of stellar results, but admitted, "They're 1-3 in national championship games, which kind of stinks, but it's also a wonderful thing go get this far."
Senior Caitlin Van Sickle echoed the sentiment, noting, "I would have hoped at least one of the three would have gone our way. We do have one under our belts and I'm happy for that, but I would have liked to have gotten this one as well."
For Kolojejchick, there were few words, just tears.
Princeton's win was its 11th against a ranked team in 2012. The Tigers' lone loss came to national semifinalist Syracuse on Sept. 23. North Carolina, in the final four for the 17th time, suffered its only other defeat on Sept. 1, also to the Orange.
"Going in, we knew Carolina had the history," Holmes-Winn said. "But it's the same approach we took against Maryland. This is our moment, our opportunity, and we have to seize the chance."
"When you look at all the past national champions, it's predominantly ACC," Katie Reinprecht said. "It's overwhelming -- the fact that an Ivy League was able to do it without scholarships. I think we won with heart today. There's obviously skill, but there's a tremendous amount of passion among this team."