A year ago, the Huskies entered postseason play with a flawless 8-0-1 conference record, earning the top seed in the American Athletic Conference Championship, and proceeded to claim the tournament title with wins over USF and SMU.
This year’s narrative is quite different. UConn was ranked No. 14 in the country in preseason polls, but struggled mightily out of the gate due to inexperience and lack of offense. At one point, it looked doubtful the Huskies would see any postseason play at all. But they turned it around in the second half of the season, posting an impressive 5-4 conference record against a very competitive American lineup.
The Huskies (7-8-3) now find themselves in the postseason once again, this time with lower expectations as a five-seed in the AAC Tournament. A loss would likely end their season—but the Huskies are poised to make some noise.
UConn’s opening round opponent is the four-seeded Memphis Tigers, who posted a 10-5-3 overall record this season, and a 4-2-3 mark against conference foes. The Tigers were picked as the preseason favorites to win the conference, so while their fourth-place finish is therefore somewhat disappointing, it’s less an indication of Memphis’ season as it is the surprising dominance of the top three.
The Tigers come in on the heels of two straight scoreless draws, albeit against two different-caliber teams: first against No. 17 Cincinnati, and then against Tulsa, who finished with only one win in conference play. No matter the quality of the opponent, The message is clear: the Memphis defense has been impenetrable as of late.
In addition to those games against Cincinnati and Tulsa, the Tigers blanked ECU immediately before, meaning they’ve given up zero goals in their last three games. The last goal surrendered by the Memphis defense? A strike from UConn’s Yamilee Eveillard in the 71st minute of their match against the Tigers back on Oct. 8.
If that game is any indication of how today’s match will go, it’ll be a tightly contested 90 minutes. The Tigers defeated the Huskies by a score of 3-2, but UConn players will remember that the game could’ve easily swung in the other direction.
The Tigers scored a pair of goals in the first 12 minutes of the game and added a third less than a minute into the second half to take a commanding 3-0 lead. But after that, it was all UConn. Regan Schiappa and Yamilee Eveillard each scored to trim the deficit to one, and unfortunately that’s all the Huskies could muster. Although Memphis comes in with a win under their belt against UConn, it was far from a one-sided performance.
The Tigers are led by a pair of junior forwards who are among the most dangerous in the country. Elizabeth Woerner and Marie Levasseur, who each scored against the Huskies, were both named to the AAC all-conference first-team on Tuesday. Sophomore Mikayla Morton completes the three-way tie atop the Memphis stat sheet for points at 22. The three have a combined 25 goals between them led by Woener with 10.
It is, therefore, no surprise that the Tigers trail only UCF in goals per game (2.22) and assists (2.00). Despite their defensive dominance as of late, Memphis has been generally a middle-of-the-pack defensive team this season, allowing 1.39 goals per game, fifth in the conference.
Junior Olivia Gauthier is the leader of the back line, earning second team honors. In net for Memphis is an inexperienced but talented keeper in Elizabeth Moberg, who was named to the all-rookie team. Memphis is second in the conference in shutouts at eight, but they’re often more a product of controlling possession on offense rather than lockdown defense. In their last game against Tulsa, Moberg only needed to make one save to preserve the shutout.
Memphis is an experienced, intelligent team, as evidenced by winning the AAC Team Academic Excellence Award, given to the team with the highest cumulative GPA. They’ll undoubtedly look to exploit UConn’s youth and inexperience.
A huge difference between the first meeting and today’s showdown will be location. The first game was played in Memphis, where the Tigers were an astounding 7-1-1. Away from their home turf, however, Memphis was a mere 1-4-2. This match will be played on neutral ground in Orlando, as UCF earned home-field advantage with their first-place finish.
The Huskies are coming off an exhilarating victory against Temple on Senior Night. Vivien Beil, who had two goals and an assist in the game, including the game-winner with under three minutes to play, was named the American Offensive Player of the Week.
Beil also earned a spot on the all-conference second team, with freshmen Kess Elmore and Yamilee Eveillard each awarded spots on the all-rookie team.
While Beil is the most dangerous player on the UConn attack, the Huskies have spread the wealth on offense throughout the season. Beil and Elmore are tied atop the roster with five goals apiece, with Eveillard and senior Sabrina Toole close behind at four. Senior Courtney Hofer will don the goalie gloves, and has been an invaluable leader since returning from injury halfway through the season.
When asked about what she told the younger players on the team, Hofer emphasized the need to focus on the task at hand: “It’s all about this game. It’s all about Memphis and getting the win.”
That said, the winner will take on top-seeded UCF on Friday. First, the Huskies must get past Memphis, tonight at 6 p.m. After an up-and-down regular season, they’ll likely have to win out to make the NCAA tournament, meaning this could be the final game in a UConn uniform for numerous Huskies. The stakes are certainly high, but the Huskies seem to welcome their underdog status.
“We’re a better team than them, and we just gotta take it to them,” Hofer said.