Pioneers Survive Furious Third-Quarter Southern Cal Rally to Advance to Second Round

Nobody ever said it was going to be easy. Even with a 6-0 second-quarter lead in NCAA Tournament play, advancing to the second round was never guaranteed. Against the Pac-12 Champion USC Trojans (16-4) at Peter Barton Lacrosse Stadium in first-round NCAA Tournament action, the 5th-seeded Denver Pioneers (20-0) had to withstand a valiant five-goal third-quarter rally from the Trojans – which erased their five-goal halftime lead – to win 10-7. It wasn’t exactly how head coach Liza Kelly drew it up but in the first-ever NCAA Tournament game in the Mile High City, the Pioneers showed up and treated a raucous crowd to an instant classic.

“I am thrilled with this victory today,” DU head coach Liza Kelly said. “I thought USC was an incredibly tough draw in the first round. They are a great team, they’re well-coached, aggressive, so I was really proud of us to come out on top, face some adversity in the third quarter and fought through it, and proved why we deserve to be the higher seed this weekend.”

To say the Pioneers started hot would be a massive understatement. USC won the opening draw but Denver’s elite defense quickly forced a turnover and went to work. Ellie Curry opened the scoring off of a slick feed from first-half MVP Lauren Black and they were off and running. Denver’s early defensive effort and Curry’s goal set the stage for a nearly perfect first half. Second Team All-BIG EAST attack Ryan Dineen scored and then Black sliced and diced Southern Cal’s defense to the tune of a natural hat trick in the span of barely six and a half minutes in the first and second quarters.

“I think we just came out prepared and ready,” Black said of DU’s first-half onslaught. “Everyone had really high intensity from the second we stepped out there. We were all playing for each other.”

Midfielder Trinity McPherson possesses the ball against USC in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Caroline Colimore added another to extend DU’s game-opening run to 6-0 but that would be all the Pioneers’ offense could muster until the 4th quarter. USC finally ended the DU run with under five minutes left in the first half but it seemed that’s all the Trojans needed to get back into the game.

Everything that went right for the Pios in the first half seemingly went wrong in the third quarter. The calls they were getting disappeared, their 6-2 first-half draw control advantage turned into a 4-2 advantage for the visitors, and the shots that goalkeeper Emilia Bohi stopped in the first half were finding twine. Everything conspiring against the Pioneers in the third led to the Trojans completely erasing DU’s hot first half and tying the game at 6 by the time the 4th quarter arrived.

“We got back on our heels a little bit,” Kelly said of the third quarter. “Things were going really well our way and then they weren’t. We had a couple possessions offensively that we had some high turnovers, didn’t get the draw controls, and we were playing a lot of defense. And [USC is] an exceptional attack…I don’t want to say it was a matter of time until they figured it out…but good teams can find a way to score.”

This is a one-and-done tournament. USC was never going to go down without a fight and once they were able to crack DU’s door open at the end of the first half, they ran right through it in the third quarter.

“We just weren’t playing characteristically,” senior captain defender Sam Thacker said of DU’s third-quarter effort. “I think USC came out hot in the second half. We needed to raise our bar.”

But what separates national title contenders from mere national tournament participants is how they respond to adversity. No, USC wasn’t going to go down easy but the Pioneers weren’t going to lay down, either. Julia Gilbert wouldn’t let them.

Less than two minutes into the final quarter of play, USC was whistled for their 4th yellow card of the game – there were 8 overall between the two teams, an insane amount – it was time for Gilbert to put the team on her back and lead them into the second round. On the ensuing free position attempt after Sloane Murphy’s yellow card, Gilbert ended DU’s scoring drought with a perfect low shot to add her name to the scoresheet and restore the lead. Gilbert’s goal jumpstarted the Pioneers and they took back control of the game.

“On attack, [assistant coach] Brice [Queener] was just reiterating just to keep composure, to take it at them, and have fun,” Gilbert said of the timeout that Kelly took after USC tied the game at 6. “This game is once-in-a-lifetime, we have to win to move on…we know what we can do, we’ve been practicing against a zone.”

Julia Gilbert plays through a check against USC in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Gilbert scored twice more, the first after midfielder Trinity McPherson drew a double team in transition to give the Pioneers a two-goal lead two minutes after scoring her first of the game. It was her second goal, though, that was the highlight of the game and completely eliminated any chance of a comeback from the visitors. It could be described, but really, words don’t do it justice. Just watch for yourself:

“I just rode hard and saw the back of the net once I got that check,” Gilbert said of her victory-sealing, highlight-reel goal. “I knew we were all going to be celebrating after it.”

As in every sport, your best players have to be your best players if you’re going to win a championship and Gilbert stepped up, put the Pioneers on her back, and led her team back to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

“On Julia’s goal, I was watching, but at the same time, the crowd was just wild,” Black said. “It just kept getting louder and louder. It was just so awesome to have all those fans there.”

No team in any sport has ever won a championship without facing and surviving adversity. For Denver, their biggest dose of it may have come on their own turf in the form of an impressive third-quarter rally from the Pac-12 champions that erased a gaudy halftime lead. Instead of shrinking from the moment, they rose to it and came through when they needed to. It was just even better that it happened in the first-ever NCAA Tournament game at Peter Barton Lacrosse Stadium.

“We pick one word before every game,” Thacker said. “Today, our word was ‘pride.’ We’re proud of what our team’s done, we’re proud of where we’re going and what we can do and just bringing an NCAA Regional to Denver has been huge, building on the success of past teams. But looking at what we’ve done this season – we had to go undefeated to host and I think that’s a huge accomplishment. Bringing pride to our program and to the school is just something that we’ll never forget.”

Now, the Pioneers’ attention turns to Sunday afternoon’s tilt against the winner of this evening’s matchup between Virginia and Albany at Peter Barton. But the message and national title expectation has been the same for Denver all year long and they won’t be straying from them now.

“Our focus all season has been about us and who’s next,” Kelly said. “For the past three weeks, I have been saying anyone, anywhere and that’s what I said to them pregame. Today was probably one of the toughest ones. I knew if we could get through today, there’s no stopping us and I really believe that.”


All photos courtesy of Jamie Schwaberow/Clarkson Creative via DU Athletics

4 thoughts on “Pioneers Survive Furious Third-Quarter Southern Cal Rally to Advance to Second Round”

  1. Survive and advance. DU had the two best players on the field and both showed up in the fourth quarter.

  2. We’ll take the win, and it’s a good reminder for that every game in the NCAA tourney is likely to be a tough one for DU, given the egregious seeding the Pios were given. The Pios clearly need to play 60 minutes with a full size chip on their shoulders, as this Denver pod is clearly the toughest pod in the NCAA tournament, as the other first round games were not very competitive.

    On balance, the Pios have to be happy that they faced some adversity in blowing a six-goal lead, and yet still stepped up to win the game on the backs of Gilbert and McPherson in the fourth quarter, who were not going to let the Pios lose. Great to hear a good home crowd of over 1,000 fans getting behind the Pios, too.

    Albany looks to be a very tough out on Sunday. The Danes came back from a 10-3 deficit to beat Virginia, and that’s no easy feat. Certainly, Albany can score goals, so the Pios will need to tighten the defense and Bohi needs to play well in the net. Albany is also the best free position shooting team in the country, so don’t foul them in the 8-meter. And DU needs to take advantage of their own free position opportunities, as Albany is also leads the nation in fouls – the dirtiest team in the country.

    The Pios also need to adjust to NCAA tourney officiating, which looks to be tighter and more card-happy than regular season.

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