Blakely Mattern still cannot believe how the USC women’s soccer team’s season is falling into place.
After Sunday’s 1-0 victory against Rutgers at Stone Stadium, the Gamecocks have posted two shutouts in the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament.
“You couldn’t write it up any better,” said the senior defender. “To get two shutouts in the NCAA’s is saying something. Every team that gets here is a good team.”
With the win, the Gamecocks (19-3-2) advance to the third round against Wake Forest (15-5-2). The site will be announced today, but it is likely the Gamecocks will host Friday night.
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Defeating a battle-tested Rutgers team (14-4-4) in front of 2,724 fans proved something else, too.
“We’re showing the country what we’re all about,” said Mattern, the Simpsonville native who has been an All-SEC player in each of her four seasons.
But the match was not decided until goalkeeper Mollie Patton made a diving save to her left with 26 seconds to play off a header by Rutgers’ Rheanne Sleiman.
“I really just reacted quickly and got the ball,” said Patton, who has a school-record 15 shutouts. “I hadn’t really been tested all half, and to be tested in the last 20 seconds, I was just happy to be quick and grab it.”
USC coach Shelley Smith, who claimed her 100th win at the school, was convinced all along her team had the ability to reach the final 16 teams.
“I don’t think it has hit us. We just have to keep playing,” Smith said. “We dreamed of getting this far. We knew we were capable of making a run in the NCAA’s. We had all the confidence in the world.”
The defensive struggle played out as expected in the first half, with both teams managing only three shots. Patton made a pair of strong saves in the game’s first 10 minutes on shots by Karla Schacher, and the Scarlet Knight never seriously challenged again in the half.
The Gamecocks made a number of nice runs that resulted in solid shots by Samantha Diaz-Matosas, including one off the right post. But they got on the board when junior forward Brooke Jacobs shook free in the box off passes from Maria Petroni and Christine Watts and fired the ball off the left post past Rutgers Erin Guthrie in the 36th minute.
From that moment, the USC midfielders and defenders took charge.
“We have played well for 90 minutes for pretty much every game we have played this year,” Smith said. “We had to weather a patch in that game when Rutgers started to come at us, and I think that just shows the heart of this team. We deserved to win, and we deserved to move on.”
Jacobs, whose goal was her sixth on the season, stepped forward just as she did with the first goal in the opening-round 4-0 victory against Davidson.
“It is an awesome feeling to be in the Sweet 16,” Jacobs said. “We have always dreamed of this. We just want to keep going with this and see how far we can make it.”
Rutgers coach Glenn Crooks saluted USC’s play in the air to win balls and its ability to keep the Scarlet Knights from getting as many runs as they would have liked.
“This was a pretty typical high-level game,” Crooks said. “When they got the opportunity to finish, they did and we didn’t.”
The end result was a win that pushed the team to 11-0 at home.
“All year we have been so strong at home. When we’re at home, we have that much more confidence,” Smith said.