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Tuesday, March 21, 2023

UF tops California in first round of NCAA Tournament

As the ball hit the back of the net for a California goal, Jazmyne Avant immediately covered her face to hide from her teammates.

She had just turned the ball over just outside the box and her only hope, goalie Katie Fraine, could not save her or the ball.

Fraine tried to console her after the goal, but nothing could be said to make Avant forget the turnover especially with the own goal she scored in UF's last match in the SEC Tournament.

Luckily for the Gators, Caitlin Howard was there to step in for Avant and help them recover from the early California goal to escape the first round of the NCAA Tournament with a 2-1 victory Friday night.

Howard usually plays one of the center back positions but had to move over to outside back when UF coach Becky Burleigh pulled Avant, who spent most of the match's remainder sitting by herself, from the game - she only returned for a short period in the second half to give Howard a breather.

In the Gators' system, the outside backs are often involved in the attacks, and on a night when their attack was often stagnant, Howard was there to provide a spark.

Her biggest impact came off her crosses, one of which set up Ameera Abdullah for the go-ahead goal in the 50th minute.

"Normally, I'm stuck in the back and when I get a chance to go forward, I want to go as hard as I can," Howard said.

Seeing Howard as an outside back wasn't the only change in UF's lineup.

Fraine got her first start in goal since the match at Kentucky on Oct. 3.

Burleigh said the change from Meghan Berlingo to Fraine had to do with the size of the field and her goal kicks and punting ability to prevent the UF defense from getting pinned into its own half.

Fraine made five saves and was aggressive in keeping the ball out of the net on the California's seven corner kicks and numerous other chances on set pieces.

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The large number of set pieces played a big role in the Gators being out-shot for the second straight match, and only the third time all season.

Although the Golden Bears had more chances on set pieces, they were never able to do what Megan Kerns did in the 15th minute: put one past the keeper.

UF made the most of its few chances, but it was far from its best performance offensively.

Abdullah said the team just needs to work on keeping its organization better and doesn't expect the lack of production from the offense to continue to be an issue.

The Gators will need their offense to manufacture more chances and have Avant return to the level of play that got her named to the SEC All-Freshmen Team if it is to get past the winner of Central Florida and Miami on Sunday in the second round.

Burleigh has confidence her freshman defender can recover from her miscues in the last matches.

"Unfortunately, mistakes happen, and it's a tough thing to recover from, but at the same time Jazmyne is a tough enough competitor that she is going to be just fine," Burleigh said.

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