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Tuesday, November 28, 2023

STONY BROOK, N.Y.- The Gators thought they were seconds away from advancing to the NCAA Championship game.

Junior midfielder Gabi Wiegand had just put a free-position shot past Syracuse goalkeeper Kelsey Richardson to give the Gators a 14-13 lead with nine seconds left in overtime.

“We were obviously elated,” head coach Amanda O’Leary said.

“We were cheering and excited,” junior midfielder Brittany Dashiell said. “We thought we had won the game.”

But, Orange sophomore attacker Alyssa Murray called for a stick check.

The pocket in Wiegand’s stick was ruled too deep, and therefore illegal. The goal was called back.

A stick pocket is considered illegal if the ball is not visible when the ball is dropped into the stick as it is being held parallel to the ground.

“It was a really smart call by Syracuse,” O’Leary said.

The Orange won the critical sudden death overtime draw, and senior midfielder Sarah Holden scored her team-high fourth goal of the game 58 seconds later.

Her stick was legal.

The goal capped a stunning comeback for the Orange and gave them a 14-13 win, making them the first team from New York to ever advance to the championship game.

A goal from Dashiell had put the Gators’ up 12-5 with 17:15 remaining in the game. After Dashiell’s goal, neither team scored until Orange freshman attacker Devon Collins found the back of the net at the 11:38 mark, sparking an 8-1 Syracuse run.

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“It was a game of runs,” O’Leary said. “They made their run when it counted.”

In the final 11:38 of regulation, the Gators could only muster two shots and lost the draw control battle 6-3. Throughout the entirety of the game, Florida consistently got beat to loose balls, as Syracuse led in ground balls, 19-6.

Even after letting Syracuse pull within one, the Gators still had a chance to put the game away after junior goaltender Mikey Meagher saved a Holden shot with 1:39 left. She took the ball out to the restraining line and attempted a pass to her left. The pass was off target and went out of bounds, and Holden scored on a free-position shot to tie the game on the ensuing possession.

“I panicked,” Meagher said. “… It’s something I have to learn from personally. Take my time. I had time.”

Holden also led the Orange in goals in the teams’ regular season matchup on March 3 in Gainesville, a game that also ended in sudden death overtime with the Orange coming out on top, 12-11. Her tying goal on Friday completed the second largest comeback in NCAA Division I tournament history, second only to Virginia overcoming a nine-goal deficit to top Duke in the 2007 semifinals.

“They were driving hard to the goal,” O’Leary said of the Orange during their run. “I don’t think defensively we were as organized as what we needed to be. They were going hard 1 v. 1 and we weren’t sliding. We weren’t helping. I think we had a breakdown defensively.”

Meagher played a strong first half to keep the Gators out of an early whole, saving seven shots in the game’s first 10 minutes, including two free-position shots.

“She literally kept us in it,” O’Leary said. “They were on-the-doorstep shots.”

Florida freshman midfielder Shannon Gilroy, a Long Island native from Northport, led all scorers with five goals, but loss several crucial draw controls in the final minutes to Syracuse attacker Kailah Kempney, who controlled a game-high seven draws.

The Orange, who trailed by three with 8:25 remaining in their quarterfinal game against Northwestern before coming back, never doubted themselves.

“At halftime, the players came together and they didn’t give up,” head coach Gary Gait said. “With a little bit of luck, drive and heart we were able to come out on top.”

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