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Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Gators move on to face Oregon State in 2nd round

Cinderella be damned.

No. 9 Florida (16-5-2) did not even allow Illinois State (12-7-1) to dream of an upset in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament, and two second-half goals gave the Gators a 2-0 win Friday night in Columbus, Ohio.

UF pressured the Missouri Valley Conference champions throughout the game, and the ball rarely touched the grass on the Gators’ side of the field.

But even with Florida maintaining possession, it could not find the back of net in the first half.

Last week, in the team’s loss to South Carolina, Florida kept the ball on the Gamecocks’ side of the field for most of the second half, but the Gators failed to score. Coach Becky Burleigh said after the game UF did everything necessary to win except keep composure near the goal.

“At halftime, the key thing we were saying was, ‘One goal and we’re going to have these guys, so we just need to find that one goal,’” forward McKenzie Barney said.

The Gators continued to dominate in the second half, and they finally got on the scoreboard in the 58th minute when midfielder Tahnai Annis beat Redbirds goalkeeper Sasha Reiber to her left.

Annis found herself in scoring position after senior Jessica Eicken stole the ball in the Illinois State defensive third.

Annis, who had started to transition to defense after the previous Gators attack seemed to be thwarted by the Redbirds, stopped and ran back to the left side of the box where Eicken found her for an assist.

The goal was especially nice for Annis, who is a native of Zanesville, Ohio, a city 55 miles east of Columbus. Several of Annis’s family members and friends from Zanesville Pickerington North high school took advantage of the rare chance to see her play in person.

Other than her parents, who occasionally travel to Gainesville during the season, all of Annis’ supporters had not seen her in orange and blue since the sophomore joined UF.

“It made me feel good about what I’ve been doing down in Florida for them to see that we’re succeeding, and it’s exciting for them because they never get to see me play,” Annis said.

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Burleigh said the goal alleviated pressure on the favored team.

“When you’re playing against (an underdog), that first goal is key,” Burleigh said.

The Redbirds had an opportunity in the 65th minute on a corner kick, but Gators goalkeeper Katie Fraine snagged the ball out of the air and quickly rolled it sophomore Jazmyne Avant near the left touchline.

Avant, who has proved to be the fastest player on the pitch all season, sprinted to midfield, where she and Barney played give-and-go. When Avant got the ball back from Barney, she continued to attack the Redbirds and brought the ball inside the box.

Avant began to fall and flicked the ball to her right, where Barney outran an Illinois State defender for the ball and shot it over Reiber’s head and into the goal to seal the game.

While Avant was dribbling the ball, the UF attack rushed into the box, bringing several Illinois State players with them. Barney, who had to slow down when she got the ball from Avant, was behind the rest of her teammates, which proved to be lucky when she was in perfect position to score after Avant’s pass.

“I wasn’t expecting the ball, but it was actually a great idea because everyone was pulled back,” Barney said.

After UF’s offensive struggles last week, when the team managed a combined one goal against Tennessee and South Carolina, Barney suggested that the team was merely saving their goals for the NCAA Tournament.

“Anyone could see the huge difference from the South Carolina game and the Tennessee game (last week),” she said. “We were just way more patient in the offensive third.”

Florida will play its next game Sunday against Oregon State (13-7-1), which beat Ohio State 3-1 Friday night.

“It’s all about winning and advancing at this stage,” Burleigh said. “It doesn’t really matter how you do it, but you need to win and advance.”

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