Last year’s postseason loss is still in the back of Florida’s mind.
An overtime defeat to Penn State where the Nittany Lions held UF scoreless for the last 18 minutes of regulation ended the Gators’ hopes for their first national title.
It also continued a series of disappointing finishes for the Gators. UF hasn’t made it past the second round of the NCAA Tournament since 2014 and hasn’t made it to the Final Four since 2012.
The Gators (17-2), who enter the tournament as the No. 3 seed, earned a first round bye and the right to host the second and quarterfinal rounds.
They ran through their schedule with ease, only dropping two games against UNC on opening day and Maryland on March 29. Florida defeated five ranked teams in the regular season, and went a perfect 9-0 in conference play.
The Gators outscored Big East opponents 162-52.
All of that means nothing now.
In the NCAA Tournament, it no longer matters what your record is or what you’ve done.
“It's win and keep going, and lose and go home,” defender Caroline Fitzgerald said. “I think we all know that. We’re putting everything out there in practice and really preparing ourselves for the upcoming game.”
When Florida opens up tournament play against USC on Sunday at noon, a team it beat 15-10 earlier this season, both teams will be playing for the same thing: to advance to the Elite Eight or go home.
But the Gators are ready for that.
Florida boasts an offense where many players can be relied on to score. Led by attacker Mollie Stevens, who leads the team in goals (57), ground balls (44) and draw controls (102), Florida has six players with at least 25 goals.
“(We need to) do what we’ve been doing, playing hard, playing as a team, working together,” Stevens said. “We had a challenging game against Denver for that Big East Championship and I think that'll help us in the future games coming up.”
Attackers Sammi Burgess, Lindsey Ronbeck and Shayna Pirreca are also scoring threats for the Gators. Burgess leads the Gators in points (77) on 36 goals and 41 assists, and Ronbeck and Pirreca rank second and third respectively in goals with 52 and 49.
And on defense, goalie Haley Hicklen is ready to play the full game in front of the goal. In the Penn State game last year, Hicklen played 48 minutes, but only made two saves. This year, she’ll most likely get the nod for the full 60 minutes, where she’ll look to help Florida make it to its fifth quarterfinals appearance.
With a defense led by seniors Fitzgerald and Bresnahan - who lead UF all time in ground balls and caused turnovers, respectively - Hicklen will depend on her back line to limit the amount of shots she faces against USC.
But with a rematch looming on Sunday, the Trojans will be even more ready this time around at Donald R. Dizney Stadium than they were in the first game.
In order for the Gators to make it back to the Elite Eight and avoid another loss in their first game of the NCAA Tournament, they’ll need to play like they have been all season and not let up.
“In the back of their minds, they know how they felt when they walked off that field last year, and I don't think they want to feel that way again,” coach Amanda O’Leary said.
Contact Jake Dreilinger at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @DreilingerJake.
UF attacker Mollie Stevens prepares to pass during Florida's 15-8 victory over Denver on March 25, 2017, at Donald R. Dizney Stadium.