COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- The image of Christen Press' teammates piling on her in the seconds after her overtime blast against UCLA sent Stanford to its first championship match Sunday against North Carolina will define a night.
The words that define the weekend were left to UCLA coach Jillian Ellis.
"I thought my team left it all out on the field," Ellis said after Stanford's 2-1 national semifinal win Friday at Aggie Soccer Stadium.
That's how Ellis summed up a night when her team found that everything it had wasn't quite good enough. The difference wasn't effort, heart or any of those familiarly vague conveniences. Both teams possessed such things in abundance. The difference was what Stanford did when in possession of the ball.
As also held true for North Carolina against Notre Dame in the only-slightly-less-dramatic nightcap on a frigid Texas night, the Cardinal won because they were the better team. And because over more than 90 minutes of end-to-end soccer, filled with all the usual near misses and lucky bounces either way, the tournament's undefeated top seed operated at a slightly higher plane of excellence.
And in a game in which it was no easy task to claim top individual billing -- given the competition from the likes of Lauren Cheney and Sydney Leroux -- Stanford's goals came on sensational efforts from forwards Kelley O'Hara and Press, the players who best exemplify Cardinal excellence as they rewrite the school's record books.
"It was fitting that two of the best strikers in the country scored goals for us to defeat them," Stanford coach Paul Ratcliffe said in the chilly aftermath.
Stanford played the first half not only against the Bruins' back line but also against a breeze that felt stiffer than the 13 miles per hour officially credited on site. Press acknowledged that the wind forced the Cardinal to adjust, playing the ball exclusively on the ground and taking an element of O'Hara's and Press' speed out of the equation on long balls. As a result -- despite owning a noticeable advantage in possession -- they survived as much as thrived in the opening 45 minutes, needing a strong save from keeper Kira Maker on a Kristina Larsen shot to go in tied 0-0 at halftime.
But Stanford's success this season isn't built just on being able to withstand slow starts on the scoreboard (the team has scored 55 of its 80 goals after halftime). Its success is predicated on trusting that, rain, shine or wind, nobody can stay with this group of skilled attacking players and nimble defenders for 90 minutes or more.
"I think it's expected from our team," Ratcliffe said of the scoreless first half. "The type of style we play is possession, so you're kind of working the ball around, trying to wear the team down or try to find the openings. And usually in the second half, hopefully, we wear teams down a little bit and create chances. Even tonight, we could have won in regulation. We had a couple of chances, and we were just unfortunate."
So it was that O'Hara found herself beyond the corner of the 18-yard box with just under 27 minutes to play, taking two touches to her right and firing a perfect shot into the upper corner. Of course, she found herself there only after Press perfectly corralled a long ball from Alicia Jenkins, laid off the lob to Lindsay Taylor, got it back on a quick touch and sent the ball to O'Hara for her bit of individual brilliance.
And after Cheney answered with the tying goal, it was Press who seized a long ball from Ali Riley that UCLA's Dea Cook had headed away from O'Hara, and skidded a shot low and hard to the far post to ignite the celebration just under four minutes into overtime.
"I just remember thinking through the whole overtime that, as a forward, you're going to have a chance, and I just had to be ready for the one opening," Press said. "Because I felt for a lot of the game, I wasn't really getting that involved as I would like to. So I was just thinking, 'The one chance is going to come, and when [it] does, [I've] just got to shoot hard and low, like Paul told us for the second half.' And it worked out."
[In] years past, it leaves a bit of a sour taste, certainly in losing. But this team has been phenomenally special to me. No regrets.
”-- UCLA coach Jillian Ellis, on the Bruins' semifinal loss to Stanford
Roughly two hours after Press made those comments, just as Notre Dame started to make what was left of a frozen crowd of more than 8,000 think an underdog that had been outplayed for an hour might pull off something miraculous, reigning Hermann Trophy winner Casey Nogueira slotted home a perfect cross from Lucy Bronze for the only goal North Carolina ultimately needed.
In the end, class prevailed Friday night.
"They were the better team, no doubt about it," Notre Dame coach Randy Waldrum said.
Like Waldrum, who won a national title in 2004 but now has four successive College Cup disappointments, Ellis was both subdued and proud in defeat. Coaching in her seventh consecutive College Cup, Ellis had the experience and class to acknowledge the reality of the moment: Her team played well enough to win -- gave itself opportunities that on another night might have led to a win. But it wasn't the best team on the field.
Maybe in years past there were times she walked away thinking her team could have done more. Not on this night.
"And I think, yeah, in years past, it leaves a bit of a sour taste, certainly in losing," Ellis said of the experience. "But this team has been phenomenally special to me. No regrets."
Sunday's winner won't be the team that wants it the most. As UCLA proved, in this day and age, it's difficult to get to this stage if you don't want it a whole lot. It will be the team that plays the best soccer.
Good thing we have the two best teams in America.
"I think we have to stay humble and realize the job's not done," Ratcliffe said. "We have one more step to take. That's what I told the team at the end; we have one more step. As much as it was exciting and it was a great win, we want to win on Sunday. We want to win the national title. That's our goal."
Lace 'em up and let the best team win. No regrets.
Graham Hays covers women's college soccer for ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com. For the complete 2009 NCAA women's soccer tournament schedule and results, click here.