Thursday, April 29, 2021

Rice deals Furman its first loss in NCAA opener

Kyndal Anderson had Furman's lone goal in the Paladins' 3-1 loss to Rice in the
opening round of the NCAA Tournament Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Furman

It took a little more than 15 minutes Wednesday for Furman to become the first women's soccer team to score against Rice in five weeks. By the end of their NCAA Tournament first round match though, the Owls became the first team to beat the Paladins all season.

In a matchup of the only two coaches Furman has ever had, the No. 21-ranked Owls rallied from the early deficit for a 3-1 win on a hot, sunny day in Cary, N.C. Coach Brian Lee's Owls advance to face fifth-seeded West Virginia on Saturday. The Southern Conference champion Paladins, who were playing in their first NCAA Tournament since 2015, end the season with a record of 8-1-2.

"Our legs just weren't underneath us today. Obviously scoring the early goal was great, but we were just late to every ball and every 50-50. I could tell we just didn't have the energy that we needed to compete against a team like Rice," Furman coach Andrew Burr said. "We tried to rotate different players and played three different systems today, just trying to find something to give us a lift. At the end of the day it just wasn't enough.

"I'm certainly proud of this group. I think they're mentally and physically exhausted from the last 12 months, but they can hold their heads up high."

The first 15 minutes of Wednesday's match seemingly all took place in front of Furman's goal as Rice (13-2-1) piled up six shots, including three corner kicks. All of a sudden, the Paladins broke through. Freshman Nieva Gaither passed to sophomore Kyndal Anderson, who split two defenders before firing the ball into the left corner of the net at the 17:23 mark. Anderson's fourth goal this season snapped an eight-game shutout streak for the Owls, who had last allowed a goal on March 15.

Rice's aggressive offensive efforts didn't slow down though and seven minutes later, freshman Natalie Gorgi tied the game at 1-1. At the 36:44 mark, Gorgi's shot found the net again and the Owls took a 2-1 lead into halftime. It marked the first time Furman trailed in a game since its season opener on March 5 and the first time all season it allowed more than one goal.

"With a shortened season like we had, you don't have a lot of opportunity to work out the kinks when you face adversity. We didn't have to face it too often this year so when you do face it, it's a little bit of foreign territory," Burr said. "It's a great learning experience for our girls, that's for sure. ... We had quite a few tests this year, and we were prepared. I think just the level of athleticism they have at Rice, we weren't quite prepared for."

Furman had a chance of tying it in the second half on one its just three shots on target for the game, but SoCon Player of the Year Isabella Gutierrez's shot could not find the net.

During a normal fall season, an opening round NCAA game would be held in November and heat would not be any kind of issue. On Wednesday though, Furman played in it's hottest game of the year. It was 88 degrees for the midafternoon game and water breaks were mandatory. Less than five minutes before a scheduled hydration timeout around the 70th minute, Rice added a backbreaking goal from Mikala Furuto.

"We were really hoping to get to that final hydration break (down 2-1) and change our system a little bit to just go forward and attack. Going down 3-1 into it just kind of deflated us," Burr said. "We just hit a wall and ran out of gas on the season. ... This was the biggest field we've played on this year and it felt huge."

The Owls had a 22-6 advantage in total shots and an 8-0 edge in corner kicks.

While disappointed in the result, Burr was able to share a light-hearted moment of reflection with Lee after the game. Prior to starting the women's program at Furman 27 years ago, Lee and Burr were teammates on the men's team. They've been the best of friends ever since.

"Back when we were playing at Furman, we had something called the 'Furman shell.' Anytime we went up 1-0, we would just collapse, get in a defensive posture and get the Furman shell going," Burr said. "I told him that the Furman shell didn't quite work today.

"Obviously, I'm so disappointed for our girls but I'm really happy for Brian and for Rice. I'm certainly going to be pulling for him for the rest of the tournament."

With only two seniors on his 22-player roster this year, Burr said he was proud of how his young team persevered through the challenges of a cancelled fall season and an uneven spring one. He's looking forward to getting back to a normal season again in less than four months.

"Our freshmen had to grow up in a hurry this year and the short turnaround's going to be good for us because we're really just starting to see what this group can do," Burr said. "They got a taste of what it feels like to win a SoCon championship and what it's like to go to the NCAA Tournament. They're excited and hungry for more."

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