Coach Becky Burleigh looked intense as ever in her classic black Gators jacket. Her eyes had a slight squint as she watched her team barely hang on to a one-goal lead.
It felt that Texas A&M had a comeback brewing. The final minutes were shaky, but her squad was victorious for the first time since Oct. 18.
Florida (11-7-1) won 2-1 over No. 17 Texas A&M on Tuesday night in Orange Beach, Alabama. The match was the quarterfinal of the SEC Tournament. On a beautiful 63 degree night on the shore of the Gulf of Mexico, UF earned a massive victory to continue in its hopes for the SEC crown as the fifth seed.
The first scoring threat of the match came off the left foot of forward Vanessa Kara, who was one-on-one with Texas A&M’s final defender. Kara was just outside of the 18-yard box, and struck. Her attempt was futile, as the shot rolled on the ground straight to TAMU (13-4-3) goalie Shantel Hutton.
Early in the match, the possession stayed mostly in the Aggies half of the field. Outside of one cross into the box that was headed away from harm by UF midfielder Carina Baltrip-Reyes, TAMU wasn’t threatening goalie Susi Espinoza at all in the first 15 minutes. With just over 30 minutes to play in the first half, the Gators got another chance.
UF earned a corner kick off of an attack from midfielder Kit Loferski that TAMU’s backline deflected away. Fellow midfielder Sammie Betters placed a ball into the 18-yard box and it made it near the feet of Kara and midfielder Parker Roberts.
However, Hutton was able to get just enough cleat on it to push the ball out of harm’s way. The Aggies cleared the ball back to the middle of the field. The stalemate continued.
The Aggies finally caved 40 minutes in. After a ball nailed the post back into TAMU’s 18-yard box, Roberts got a head on it to pop it multiple feet into the air. When it came back down, she let it fall to her feet and rolled it past Hutton. Advantage Gators, 1-0.
That goal was an enormous conclusion to the half that showed both teams struggling to create chances. That struggle continued into the second half, as the game went another 23 minutes with no score.
Then, with 27 minutes left, Betters placed a through ball to Kara inside the right side of the 18-yard box. Kara zoomed past the entire Aggie backline and shot a baseline strike. It squeezed through just past Hutton inside the right post. Advantage two.
The rest of the match went mostly UF’s way. It controlled the midfield with relative ease as the Aggies were pressing to score and making mistakes. There was one more free kick opportunity with 17 minutes to go, where Betters played a perfect ball in the 18-yard box to Loferski. Loferski took a chance, but Hutton made her best save of the night, getting a left foot on it out of threatening territory.
Then, with nine minutes left, TAMU made it interesting. Aggies forward Ally Watt took a free kick just outside the 18-yard box. She curled the ball with her right foot and hit the bottom of the crossbar past Espinoza and in.
There was only a one-goal difference now. It was 2-1 Gators, but the Aggies suddenly had an energy they hadn’t had all game. The final nine minutes were a fight that was certainly not a finished product.
Even still, the Gators fought through the final stretch and squeezed a 2-1 victory over the Aggies.
Florida earned a chance to play No. 1 Arkansas in the semifinals. This will be the first contest between the Gators and the Razorbacks this season, and it comes with a chance to play in the SEC Championship.
Follow Graham Marsh on Twitter @GrahamMarshUF. Contact him at [email protected]