Women’s soccer: Huskies set to battle SMU in conference finals

The UConn women's soccer team huddles before the AAC semifinal game against USF on Friday, Nov. 4 at Joseph J. Morrone Stadium. The Huskies won 2-0 and will advance to the conference finals against SMU, seeking their second-ever American Athletic Conference championship title. (Jason Jiang/The Daily Campus)

Beneath the white lights of Morrone Stadium on a chilly Friday evening, with much of the attention on the football team, the UConn women’s soccer team made sure that they were the brightest stars of the night.

The Huskies downed the USF Bulls by a score of 2-0 in the American Athletic Conference semifinals to advance to their second-ever AAC conference finals. In their only other appearance in 2014, they beat USF in penalty kicks.

“You go one game at a time. We don’t think about championships, we don’t think about anything,” head coach Len Tsantiris said. “We’re not going to think about championships on Sunday. Let’s fight to win this game and then we’ll see what happens. If it happens to be the championship, fine! We’ll take it. We gotta win the game. That’s the mentality.”

INCHING CLOSER TO HISTORY

Hill is closing out a storied career with a bang. She notched her 14th goal of the season in the first half of Friday night’s game, putting her at 59 goals for her career. She is in sole possession of second place on the all-time goals scored list, and is four goals away from tying the record at 63.

UConn Forward Rachel Hill scores the first goal during AAC Semifinal against USF on Nov. 4 2016 © Jason Jiang / The Daily Campus

“[My goal tonight] felt really good. I took it down the line a couple of times, didn’t really get shots off. So I just looked up and saw the opportunity and it was nice it went in,” Hill said.

Senior Stephanie Ribeiro also netted a goal of her own, giving her 20 goals on the season. It came during the first few minutes of the second half, giving UConn a 2-0 lead and a much-needed cushion as USF continued to pressure and UConn’s chances were numbered.

Ribeiro’s 20th goal not only puts her in sole possession of first place in the nation for goals scored, but she is four goals away from tying the single-season record for goals scored, which is 24.

A PIVOTAL CALL

With 15 minutes to go in the second half, freshman defender Kristen Vinciguerra received a red card after kneeing a USF defender who had fallen on the ground. Vinciguerra is now ineligible to play in the conference final, but can make her return at the start of the NCAA tournament.

Based solely off the noise of the crowd, it would seem like the referee was missing calls left and right. Tsantiris not only thought that Vinciguerra was unrightfully given a red card, but the referee was missing what he thought were attempts by USF players to intentionally hurt his players.

“I don’t know what [the referee] saw, but I thought she was moving her leg to move out,” Tsantiris said. “One is to kick somebody, and the other is to lift your leg, I mean, come on… and the other kid is getting shoved over here; you can break your neck, you can break your back. That’s where I got really pissed. That’s not acceptable.”

THE GIRLS ARE BACK IN TOWN

Sunday’s game will mark the 13th appearance in a conference final for the Huskies. They appeared in 10 Big East tournament finals, winning twice in 2002 and 2004. Their lone American title came in 2014.

In the regular season, the Huskies tied SMU after both teams failed to score a goal in regulation and both overtimes. This will be the Mustangs’ first trip to the conference finals, as they have failed to make it past the quarterfinals for the past two years.

“They’re very well-organized, they’re very well-coached. They’ve got some good players too. They’re a good team together,” Tsantiris said. “I don’t think we had a good offensive game against them [in the regular season] down there, you know, travel and all that. But we defended well, so we didn’t give them anything. They had a lot of opportunities, but we didn’t give them anything.”  

Historically, UConn has not had great success in conference finals. From 1995-1999, they lost to Notre Dame five times in a row, and twice more in 2000 and 2005.

This year’s team has been one of the better ones in recent years, boasting the likes of four-time first team All-Conference selection Hill, a more precise shooter and AAC Offensive Player of the Year in Ribeiro, two-time American Goalkeeper of the Year Emily Armstrong, and a strong band of defenders, including first-team All-Conference selection Toriana Patterson.

The biggest key for the Huskies to succeed in the finals against a team that gave them some struggles in the regular season will be effort and cohesiveness, Hill said.

“I think [the key to success is] just making sure right from the first whistle we’re going as hard as we can. Just connecting passes, keeping possession, and getting our shots off,” Hill said. We’re going to give them a lot of respect, but not be afraid of them. We’re on our home field, so that’s good for us. We’ll come out strong.”

Last season, UConn lost in the semifinals 3-2 to Cincinnati in overtime, and fell to Rutgers 4-0 in the Sweet Sixteen. This year, with stars Stephanie Ribeiro and Rachel Hill playing their final games in Husky uniforms, UConn is building up all its momentum to take home another conference title.

Kickoff is slated for 2 p.m.


Stephanie Sheehan is the associate managing editor for The Daily Campus, covering men’s basketball. She can be reached via email at stephanie.sheehan@uconn.edu. She tweets @steph_sheehan.