Early-Round Win Old Hat for Florida, Downs Denver
|Florida rebounded from a
low-scoring loss to Northwestern in the ALC title game by cruising
past Denver in a second-round game on Sunday afternoon in
© Jim Burgess
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The NCAA tournament is no longer an unfamiliar frontier for the Florida Gators. Getting through the opening weekend is becoming a routine.
Florida, the No. 5 overall seed, handled unseeded Denver 16-5 at Dizney Stadium in the second round. The Gators move on to the quarterfinals, where they will travel to fourth-seeded Syracuse on Saturday or Sunday.
The Gators' victory over Denver was convincing and helped push last week's 8-3 loss to Northwestern in the ALC tournament title game out of their minds.
"We weren't really shaken," Florida goalie Mikey Meagher said. "It wasn't our best game, but we knew we'd get it together and that really showed today."
The Gators (18-2) were in control from the onset. They scored three times in the first 3:05 and closed the first half on a 9-0 run to lead 12-1.
Denver (18-3) fought hard at the start of the second half and cut Florida's advantage to 12-3, but did not have enough firepower to pull off the unlikely comeback. The Pioneers tied UF 4-4 in the second half.
"We calmed down a little bit," Denver coach Liza Kelly. "This is a big stage for us. Florida's a little bit more seasoned having been to the Final Four. Florida is hands down the best team we played all season.
"We just seemed a little shell shocked on defense (at the beginning). We weren't making the plays we typically do. We were playing tentatively. In the second half, we made some better double teams."
For the Pioneers, it was a frustrating end to an otherwise bright season.
The program, which started in 1999, had never been to the NCAA tournament. It also set a new school record for wins.
On its road to the NCAA quarterfinals, Denver posted victories over ranked opponents Louisville and Stanford. It also beat fellow tournament team High Point and took down Jacksonville 14-7 in the opening-round game Friday.
"I'm so proud," Pioneers defender Kate Henrich said. "Hands down, this is the best team I've ever been a part of. We made history. Florida's an awesome team. If we're gonna lose, I'm glad we lost to them because I can see them being the next national champs."
At this point, that is as good a prediction as any.
Florida's trio of attacker Kitty Cullen, midfielder Shannon Gilroy and attacker Ashley Bruns continues to look unstoppable. Containing those three will be problematic for any team the Gators face the rest of the way. They have combined for 148 goals this season.
Cullen scored five times against Denver, with Gilroy and Bruns adding four goals each. Brittany Dashiell had three assists. The Pioneers' defense was decent, but could not withstand Florida's barrage of 27 shots on goal.
"They played a really nice defensive game," Gators coach Amanda O'Leary said. "We had a flurry of shots in the first half, but then they held us to nine shots in the second half. They were coming up with the 50-50 balls, too."
Meagher stopped 9 of 14 shots, including a kick save on a free-position attempt by Rachel McKinnon. The shot struck bare skin, but she was unfazed.
"I just try to see the ball out of the offensive player's stick and try to get it with any part of my body that I can," she said. "It felt alright because it wasn't a goal."
The combination of Meagher and the strong defense in front of her prevented Denver from scoring a regular goal for a stretch of more than 40 minutes. The Pioneers scored twice on free-position shots during that span.
The Pioneers got goals from five different players, including Jenn Etzel. She finished the season with 52 scores. Kara Secora had two assists and wrapped up her senior season with 58 goals and 28 assists.
Wins like this are starting to feel routine in Gainesville as the Gators have advanced out of the opening week three straight years. Still, the Florida players do not take these steps lightly -- especially the ones who played on the inaugural team in 2010.
"We started this program and we want to go out without any regrets," said Cullen, a senior. "We don't want to look back and wonder if there's anything else we could've done. We're putting everything out there.
"This is definitely a huge win. Denver had a really good season, probably one of the best they've had yet. There's a lot of pieces to the puzzle, and in the end, every win is something we're going to be happy about."
Florida now turns its glare toward a well-known enemy. Syracuse, which defeated Dartmouth 21-8 on Sunday, bounced the Gators from the Final Four with a 14-13 overtime win last spring. The Orange also beat Florida in double overtime in the regular season that year.
The Gators got a taste of revenge this year by taking down Syracuse 14-10 in Miami on March 2.