Soccer wins NCAA Tournament opener

The Tigers will face Illinois at Walton Stadium on Sunday.
Senior forward Ashley Hamblin congratulates freshman midfielder Candace Ruff after Ruff's goal, the second of the game. MU defeated Evansville 2-0 in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday at Walton Stadium.

It was probably one of the most important coin-tosses in the Missouri soccer program's history.

With the temperature hovering just above freezing and winds gusting to almost 30 mph, blowing rain across the field, MU won the coin-toss to determine which goal it would attack first in Friday's NCAA Tournament opener at Walton Stadium.

The Tigers, like always, elected to take the wind at their backs in the first half. The advantage helped MU score twice before halftime, and the Tigers held on to beat Evansville 2-0 Friday night, giving MU its second-ever NCAA Tournament win. The Tigers will play Illinois in the second round at 1 p.m. Sunday.

"That was one of our goals — to take advantage of the wind and the elements in the first half," coach Bryan Blitz said.

In the fourth minute, junior forward Michelle Collins outran several Evansville defenders to catch up to a ball from junior defender Crystal Wagner and shot it into the upper left corner, giving Missouri a 1-0 lead.

"You want to set the tempo," said Collins, who is playing with a hip injury. "And I think that getting the first goal, getting the early goal always sets the tempo."

Thirty minutes later, freshman midfielder Candace Ruff headed a corner kick from senior forward Ashley Hamblin into the net to double MU's lead.

The Tigers (16-5-1) dominated possession in the first half and out-shot Evansville 16-1. The wind prevented the Purple Aces' goal kicks from reaching midfield, keeping the ball on Evansville's half of the field.

"The wind is normally a huge factor in the game," Evansville coach Krista McKendree said. "I'm not going to say that's what created their goal, but I think that definitely gives them the momentum and gives our players a little bit of unsureness of how the ball's going to bounce and how far it's going to go."

Evansville's leading goal-scorer, senior Kayla Lambert, said the wind made it hard for the Purple Aces (13-5-2) to take advantage of their forwards' speed.

"When the ball's coming right back down your throat every time you kick it, it's a disadvantage,” she said.

McKendree and Lambert gave Missouri credit, but more normal conditions might have resulted in a different game.

"In different elements, I think we would've matched up with them," said Lambert, the Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year.

In the second half, Evansville controlled the ball more, but it had just three shots on goal, while MU had 12. The Tigers totaled 28 shots on goal to the Purple Aces' four.

McKendree said the Purple Aces don't usually get a lot of shots on goal, but they normally convert one or two of their chances. She said Evansville's attack was not smooth and that her team panicked in the first half, which led to uncertainty among Evansville's players.

Coming into the game, Evansville knew about the MU's pressure, but the Tigers' attack was still effective.

"I think they did (pressure) the most effectively that we've seen," McKendree said.

The MVC Coach of the Year also complimented MU's depth.

"You don't notice much drop-off when they sub," McKendree said.

The Purple Aces are now 0-4 in the NCAA Tournament.

Illinois beat Memphis 1-0 in double overtime before MU's game. The Tigers opened their season against Illinois on Aug. 23 in Columbia, when Illinois beat MU 2-1 in overtime.

"They're hard to break down," Blitz said. "I think they start with their defense first. I think that's what got them here. We'll have to be creative and find different ways maybe to break them down."

MU had just one shot on goal in the first meeting, but Blitz said Missouri is a more consistent team now.

MU's pressure will again be the key to a win, Collins said.

"If we press and keep our high pressure, I think that will give us a lot of opportunities against them because they like to possess (the ball)," Collins said. "And if we can just disrupt their possession, don't let them get into a rhythm, I think we're going to have a really good chance."

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