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Friday, March 31, 2023

The Gators are back in a familiar position.

With five wins in the last six matches, No. 12 Florida (13-4-2, 7-1-2 Southeastern Conference) is in control of the SEC. South Carolina lost to LSU on Sunday, and now UF is in first place with one match left.

Florida's latest win came Sunday against Arkansas (8-6-4, 2-6-2 SEC). Despite controlling play for most of the game, UF needed a second-half goal from Lindsay Thompson to sneak away with the victory.

The Gators' deciding goal came in the 64th minute. The sequence began when senior Lauren Hyde sent a free kick from midfield into the penalty box. After sophomore Sarah Chapman deflected the ball with a header, forward McKenzie Barney found Thompson, who was running in from the right wing, and Thompson scored from seven yards out.

The sophomore leads the team with nine goals and 20 points.

Although the Gators scored just once, they had several good opportunities, and they could have prevailed more decisively had one of their three shots that hit the post found the net instead.

Defending its own side of the field, Florida succeeded in keeping the Arkansas attack quiet. The team's shutout came one game after keeping LSU off the scoreboard.

"This is when we should be playing our best soccer, because we have been playing together for the last 20 games," goalkeeper Katie Fraine said.

Coach Becky Burleigh points to the effort of UF's forwards and attacking midfielders as a reason for the improved defense. Earlier in the season, those players were not helping the back line enough.

"When the ball got behind us, we felt that was the next line's responsibility as opposed to tracking back and making it your own responsibility," Burleigh said.

Arkansas' only threat came in the 80th minute when Fraine jumped to catch the ball. While in the air, an Arkansas defender pushed Fraine behind the goal line, but the referees called a foul on the defender.

"It was kind of scary because you never know what the ref is going to call, because I was technically across the line," Fraine said.

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Burleigh decided to shuffle the team's lineup after the LSU match to put fresh legs on the field. The coaches considered having two lineups all season - one for the first match of the weekend, another for the second - but Burleigh said she never felt ready to experiment until this weekend.

If they get past the first round, the Gators will use multiple lineups next week at the SEC Tournament.

Florida was without two of its offensive weapons for much of the game Sunday. Midfielder Tahnai Annis sat out with concussion-like symptoms stemming from a collision against LSU.

Freshman Brooke Thigpen, who is tied for second on the team with 15 points, limped off the field with a sprained left ankle in the 56th minute.

Burleigh said she is unsure of Thigpen's status for this week, but she expects Annis to be ready to play Friday, which could be crucial as the team prepares for South Carolina.

While four teams can still win the SEC, a Gators victory against the Gamecocks guarantees them the conference championship.

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