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UNC tops Florida International with late penalty kick conversion

Raby George has made a habit of converting big penalty kicks for North Carolina.

The senior came through again Friday night, sending the fifth-ranked Tar Heels over visiting Florida International 1-0 at Fetzer Field in the season-opening Carolina Nike Classic. Santa Clara, a 1-0 loser at Wake Forest on Friday, will visit UNC for the classic’s finale at 7 p.m. Sunday.

George had converted two penalties in exhibition games this season against Davidson and Coastal Carolina. He also beat Coastal last year with an overtime PK, and two years ago the midfielder from Sweden earned the Tar Heels a comeback tie at Maryland with one.

Less than 10 minutes remained in a scoreless game when Nico Melo lined up for the Tar Heels’ 10th corner kick of the night. He served to the far post and 6-foot-5 forward Tucker Hume, inserted just for that play. Hume headed it into a crowd in the goalmouth, where UNC midfielder Andy Lopez got a foot on it.

The ball hit FIU defender Marvin Hezel’s arm, resulting in the penalty call by the referee and leaving Hezel sprawled on the turf.

George calmly stepped up and drilled the ball into the lower left corner past goalkeeper Robin Spiegel, giving UNC coach Carlos Somoano his fifth victory in as many season openers. The loss spoiled a homecoming of sorts for FIU coach Scott Calabrese, who was a UNC assistant in 2000-01. The Tar Heels won the NCAA championship in his second year on the staff.

“I’ve been here three years now – penalty kicks are no problem,” George said confidently. “ I feel I’m going to make it every time.”

Despite outshooting FIU 17-9, UNC couldn’t find the net most of the night. That could be a growing concern as Somoano tries to find goal scorers to replace graduated forwards Andy Craven, Rob Lovejoy and Tyler Engel, who were UNC’s top scorers a year ago.

Somoano said he brought Hume off the bench in the same role where last year the coach used twin brother Walker Hume, who is sidelined with a broken foot.

“It seemed like we had 25 corner kicks,” Somoano said. “We weren’t creating anything. Obviously Tucker’s very tall. We aren’t using him in the run of play, but on set pieces he can make something happen.”

Not much else happened offensively for either team. Both saw a great chance carom off the crossbar on a shot from distance, by George in the 26th minute and by FIU’s Brad Fountain in the 68th on a free kick. Spiegel also came up with one of his three saves, denying Zach Wright in the 52nd minute after a cross from David October found Wright open from six yards.

“Generally speaking I thought we played really tight,” Somoano said. “For some reason, the guys played with a lot of pressure. FIU is a very good team. They were part of our frustration. They came in with a good game plan.”

The Tar Heels also were without senior midfielder Alex Olofson, who sat out because the red card he received in the NCAA quarterfinals against UCLA carried over to this season. Three freshmen and two redshirt freshmen made their collegiate debuts for UNC, including goalkeeper James Pyle from Charlotte, who made four saves while turning in a clean sheet.

“That’s about the toughest call we have,” Somoano said of the decision to start Pyle over redshirt senior Sam Euler. “I thought he did the job. He handled the situations he was supposed to handle. I don’t know if he saw anything incredibly difficult, but it’s not as easy out there as it looks.”