(2) North Carolina vs (3) Baylor – 1:00 PM
North Carolina provided Baylor with a stark example of the harsh realities of life in this competition against top level teams last season, and the Bears will get a chance to show what they’ve learned on Sunday afternoon in Chapel Hill. Last year’s 5-0 defeat to the Tar Heels by Baylor probably still rings a bit in the Bears’ ears, but Marci Jobson’s side gets a chance for revenge, as they try and knock UNC out in the Sweet Sixteen for the third year running.
On Friday’s evidence though, Baylor could be facing a steep task. Against a reasonably strong Illinois team, North Carolina unleashed one of their best NCAA Tournament performances in years, hitting the Illini for nine, made even more impressive by the fact that the Heels were down a goal after just eighty-nine seconds had elapsed. Seven different Tar Heels scored, while twelve netted a point in the demolition.
By contrast, Baylor had to work hard for their Sweet Sixteen ticket, enjoying the bulk of the offense against Georgetown but looking to have squandered a golden chance after Daphne Corboz put them behind with less than eight minutes to play. The Bears would scramble for an equalizer from Bri Campos though, and with the momentum clearly on their side, finished it early in extra time through Dana Larsen.
One thing that becomes apparent when you look at the box score of Baylor’s Friday contest, is that they’re going to have to do a much better job finishing their chances if they stand a prayer of a chance against UNC. They were peppering the Georgetown goal for the entire afternoon but were still just a few minutes away from defeat, which hardly bodes well for them on Sunday.
Carolina stuck with their 3-4-3 formation they used in the first round against Radford but moved Crystal Dunn up front to partner Kealia Ohai and Summer Green. Needless to say, it worked a treat, and UNC exploded offensively. Considering the results, it’d be a shock if the Heels fiddled with the starting formation and personnel ahead of this Sweet Sixteen clash.
Baylor will probably give a better account of themselves than Illinois did, but I don’t see their offense being clinical enough in front of goal, while the Bear defense faces a big challenge themselves, though they have been solid for much of the season. Keeping UNC at bay for ninety minutes doesn’t look to be easy though, and I think the Heels will motor through to the last eight after another solid display.
Prediction: (2) North Carolina 2 – 0 (3) Baylor
(2) Florida vs Notre Dame – 1:00 PM
It reads like something out of Hollywood: Young rookie scores national title winning goal. Young player falls out of favor and finds new team. Young player looks for revenge against old team with new team. Adriana Leon of Florida will get the chance to pen the ending to that story on Sunday in this most intriguing of third round matches. There’s been very little drama for Florida thus far in the Big Dance. After whitewashing Florida Gulf Coast in the opening round, the Gators took on state rivals UCF on Friday and did pretty much the same thing, holding the Knights to one off-target shot on the evening.
The Gators’ gains were more than in just the scoreline though, as they finally look to be close to a full-strength team again. Kathryn Williamson returned to the starting lineup for the first time in months since her meniscus injury and encouragingly went the whole distance for Florida. Jo Dragotta also returned for the full ninety after a concussion in the SEC Tournament final, while Annie Bobbitt saw almost twenty minutes off the bench. The Gators had certainly made do without some of their starting core, but this team’s potential skyrockets with their full compliment of players available to them.
Opponents Notre Dame looked to be in trouble in their second round matchup against Wake Forest after conceding late in the first half to go down 1-0 at the interval. The Irish would come out of the break roaring though, taking advantage of a flat second half start by the Demon Deacons, with rookies Cari Roccaro and Crystal Thomas firing the Irish into the last sixteen. The Irish defense held Katie Stengel without a shot on goal and the Demon Deacons to just three on goal over the whole game. Notre Dame themselves only had a pair of shots on goal, but they made them count in the end, ensuring the upset over the ACC side.
UND head coach Randy Waldrum made a proactive tactical adjustment at the half, putting Roccaro into the front line while moving Glory Williams into the defensive midfield role, and it paid dividends. The question now is whether he’ll do it from the start on Sunday. While Roccaro’s a great weapon to have up front, her physicality may be needed in the center of the park to combat Florida’s Holly King and Dragotta in that zone.
Keeping Florida attacking midfielder Erika Tymrak at bay is also going to be paramount for the Irish as well, especially to cut off service to a motivated Leon up front. You suspect that it’s going to be tight and cagey for both sides, but I think experience is going to play a big role, with Florida having a discernible edge in that department. Then again, that’s what I said before the Irish played Wake Forest on Friday, and the Big East side certainly didn’t blink then.
Prediction: (2) Florida 1 – 0 Notre Dame
(1) Florida State vs Texas A&M – 1:00 PM
Florida State will get the chance to complete a double over teams from Texas on their path to the College Cup in San Diego when they take on Texas A&M on Sunday. The Noles will certainly be hoping for an easier time of it than Friday night’s contest, when Texas Tech pushed them to the limit. FSU found themselves behind early and then pegged for an equalizer late but finally gritted out a win after Tiffany McCarty finished a brace in the second half of extra time.
While the Noles will be happy to have kept their season alive, there were certainly warning signs for the club, even in victory. TTU’s Janine Beckie was able to have a fantastic game in attack for the Red Raiders, which has got to be a little perturbing considering Texas A&M has some comparable weapons to throw out offensively. Defensively, FSU has been a roller coaster over the past month, having conceded two goals in three of their last seven matches.
Texas A&M didn’t have anywhere near as much to fuss about against an overmatched Oakland side on Friday. Annie Kunz netted the winner within the first quarter of an hour before the club added two more later to cruise to victory. Importantly, especially given FSU being dragged to extra time, A&M was able to rotate through almost its entire bench, which should see the team with reasonably fresh legs going into the Sweet Sixteen.
The defensive effort was strong, but then again, Florida State’s attackers aren’t Oakland’s. Going the other way, Kunz has been an extremely effective battering ram spearheading the attack, but she figures to have her hands full with two center-backs in Kristin Grubka and Kassey Kallman who can match her strength and physicality. More than ever, it means that Shea Groom and Allie Bailey out wide are going to be critical in helping create and finish chances for the Aggies, though they figure to be watched after closely by full-backs Casey Short and Ines Jaurena.
A&M most definitely has the tools to put it all together for an upset if all the pieces are firing on all cylinders. Florida State has just found a way to win so often this season though and has such an experience advantage at this stage of the tournament, that it’s hard to look past them. As is the norm with this round, I think it’ll be close, but I see the home side progressing in a tight one.
Prediction: (1) Florida State 2 – 1 Texas A&M
(2) San Diego State vs (3) UCLA – 3:00 PM
San Diego State’s spent the season defying the odds, and the Aztecs will get the chance to make more skeptics into believers if they can topple Pac-12 giants UCLA on Sunday afternoon. Things looked a bit dodgy in the opening half of Friday’s showdown with Cal, as the Aztecs conceded in the twelfth minute and then spent the rest of the half trying to find a way through, ultimately not testing Cal keeper Emily Kruger. Whatever was said at the half definitely worked though, as SDSU came out on a missing in the second half, equalizing in short order before seeing Tiffany Hurst net the winner with less than eight minutes to play in regulation. The Aztec defense buckled down as well, keeping a dangerous Cal attack to just one shot on goal in the second half.
UCLA didn’t have nearly as much trouble against Kentucky in their second round game. The Bruins would push and push until getting a goal from Ally Courtnall late in the first half. A brace by Chelsea Cline opened the floodgates for the club, who rolled to a 5-0 triumph. That the Bruins were able to do all that without Zakiya Bywaters, Taylor Smith, or Rosie White scoring or Jenna Richmond or Sam Mewis logging a point speaks volumes. The Bruin defense also continued to impress in the NCAA Tournament, holding Kentucky to just four shots and two on-target efforts on the night, further banishing their USC nightmare into a distant memory.
The Bruin defense has been as impressive as any in the nation through two rounds of the competition but faces a stern test against a San Diego State team packed with weapons. Cal was able to all but shut Megan Jurado down on Friday, but the Aztecs displayed their versatility with Hurst and Keane ruling the roost in attack. Jurado figures to have a hard time of it again, with Abby Dahlkemper likely to try and keep the SDSU attacking talisman in check, meaning the Aztecs will again need contributions from their secondary attacking options.
The Bruins may well have the fresher legs, having been able to rotate their squad with the easy win against Kentucky, while SDSU had to dig deep against Cal. It might not seem like a big thing at first, but this one looks very well balanced, with fatigue potentially providing a tipping point for the Pac-12 side. In any event, I think the Bruins just have a few more weapons in their arsenal, so I’m calling for them to pull the (slight) upset and move on to the Elite Eight.
Prediction: (2) San Diego State 0 – 1 (3) UCLA [aet]
(2) Virginia vs (3) Duke – 4:00 PM
It’s not too often that the lower seeded team in an NCAA Tournament matchup this late in the competition enters facing more pressure than the favorite, but that’s very much the case here in this tantalizing Sweet Sixteen showdown. Duke likely had designs of a national title winning season after making it all the way to last year’s final but came into this competition having endured a mid-table season in the ACC while also having bowed out early in the ACC Tournament.
The Blue Devils have squashed two overmatched sides in the opening rounds though, raising hopes slightly that they’ll be able to come through when it counts most. Miami (OH) was no match for Duke on Friday, with Kim DeCesare putting the club up 2-0 within thirteen minutes. It was 4-0 after fifty minutes, with Miami (OH) pulling a consolation back in the end.
Virginia’s been just as dominant so far, having ripped through Rutgers on Friday. The Cavs got a wake up call when Jonelle Filigno scored in the eighth minute, but it was all Virginia after that. Caroline Miller had another brilliant game, with two goals and an assist, with Danielle Colaprico also at her imperious best, scoring the club’s second and assisting on both of Miller’s goals. Perhaps most encouraging was the game by Makenzy Doniak, who had started off the season in deadly form but had cooled off as the season had gone on. If Doniak’s firing true, she’s another great weapon for the Cavs up front on a squad with tons of firepower already.
Duke has some major tactical questions to be answered going into this one. The first is less of a tactical question and more of a personnel question, as Natasha Anasi was hurt at the end of the Miami (OH) game. While the injury doesn’t seem to be serious, missing Anasi for any length of time would be a potential mortal blow for a defense that has already had issues this season. The other big question is what’s to be done with that defense. While the unit of Anasi, Jandl, Haller, and Koballa has worked fine thus far in the ACC Tournament, Robbie Church may consider moving Mollie Pathman back to full-back. She played there earlier this year and would conceivably add some security to the backline.
If she does end up in defense, either Cassie Pecht or Kelly Cobb could end up up front. Cobb’s strength aerially makes her an inviting option against a UVA side that isn’t totally secure in the air, but the Alaskan hasn’t been in great form and probably can’t go much more than an hour due to nagging injuries. The Blue Devils may have the edge of experience in going deeper into this tournament than Virginia, but the Cavs seemingly have more weapons going forward and more security going the other way. Some early offense by the visitors could raise some doubts, but I don’t think Duke will be able to stem the offensive tide for ninety minutes.
Prediction: (2) Virginia 3 – 2 (3) Duke
(1) Stanford vs Denver – 4:00 PM
These two last met a little over five years ago in an early season non-conference matchup. Stanford was also #1 in the country then, but the Card would be left licking their wounds after a shock 1-0 defeat to the Pioneers. Jeff Hooker’s side will try to rekindle a little of that magic on Sunday, as Denver tries to shock the world again. Shocking Stanford’s going to likely take some immense effort though, as the Card beat back another stern challenge on Friday by Santa Clara. Nothing like their first meeting, the Card were forced to scrap the whole way, with Courtney Verloo continuing a sizzling run of form, netting two goals for the defending national champs. A SCU goal late made it a little hairy, but Stanford still went through to the last sixteen after vanquishing their local rivals again.
Denver ended up in one of the tournament’s most dramatic games to this point on Friday, coming back from two down to win, 3-2. The Pioneers got out to a wobbly start, going down after just four minutes while seeing their NCAA Tournament hopes sink further after a goal by Becky Kaplan at the hour mark. Set pieces would save Denver though, as Nicholette DiGiacomo flicked a header in to make it 2-1 before scoring from the spot in dramatic fashion with forty seconds to play. DiGiacomo would complete a stunning hat trick early in extra time with an unstoppable shot from range to give Denver an amazing win.
Let’s be clear: If Denver gets down by two goals against Stanford, they aren’t coming back. That being said, the Pioneers have plenty in the tank to give the Card a big challenge. While Maryland did a great job in shutting down Kristen Hamilton and Kaitlin Bast, DiGiacomo went crazy with an eight shot, five shot on goal, three goal performance that likely ranks among the best in school history. She’s likely to find herself watched intently by Mariah Nogueira though, so it’s going to be critical that Denver can get offense from a variety of sources on Sunday.
The partnership of Verloo and Chioma Ubogagu up top for Stanford has been bearing fruit late in the season for Stanford and will be key for their hopes of retaining their national title. I think that duo should have enough of the play against the Denver defense to fire Stanford into the last eight, though the Pioneers could put a mighty scare into the Pac-12 champs.
Prediction: (1) Stanford 2 – 1 Denver
(1) Penn State vs Michigan – 7:00 PM
Penn State beat ten of their league brethren on the way towards a Big Ten title this season. The one they didn’t beat? Michigan, in a 1-1 draw at home in late October. They’ll get a chance to set that right and advance to the Elite Eight on Sunday night. The Nittany Lions will be hoping they didn’t expend too much energy in a wild slugfest against Boston College where much of the talking was thankfully done on the pitch instead of off of it, as had been the case in the run up to the game.
PSU erupted early, with Maya Hayes netting a double within the first half-hour, before Mallory Weber seemingly put it out of reach with a goal right after the break. Kristen Mewis clawed two back in less than three minutes though, driving an icy knot into the pit of every PSU fan. The Nittany Lions would show the maturity past squads haven’t though, scoring twice more to salt it away late.
Michigan also had the offense rolling on Friday, using a clinical display of finishing to devastate Portland, 3-0. Star striker Nkem Ezurike turned provider in the first half, assisting on the club’s first two goals before delivering the nail in the coffin herself just after the hour mark. Almost as impressive was the defensive effort that held a dangerous Portland attack to just a single shot on goal on the afternoon.
Unlike the majority of these Sweet Sixteen matches, these two are familiar foes, having met up in an entertaining matchup in the regular season. In that match, PSU bombarded the Michigan goal with thirty-one shots, but critically, the Wolverines held both Maya Hayes and Mallory Weber without an attempt on goal. Christine Nairn had six of them though and netted the penalty kick equalizer after Ezurike had put UM up at the hour mark.
It’s unlikely that Michigan is going to survive another match while giving up that many shots, but they can take heart in knowing that PSU’s defense has been far from foolproof. The fact that the Big Ten champs gave up twenty-four shots against BC should also send some alarms ringing, though to be fair, the bulk of those were to Kristen Mewis, who was like a force of nature on Friday. Michigan doesn’t have a midfielder like Mewis, but they do have Ezurike, who is unplayable when she’s on her game. Michigan will need her to be if they have any hopes of an upset on enemy turf. More than likely though, they’ll still be outgunned, even if Ezurike has a star showing, and I expect the PSU offense to carry them into the last eight.
Prediction: (1) Penn State 2 – 1 Michigan