HOUSTON -- Sophomore defender and Dallas native Lauren LaGro scored the deciding goal in overtime to lift the Rice soccer team to a 2-1 Conference USA win over visiting SMU Sunday afternoon at the Rice Soccer Stadium. With the victory the Owls claimed their second-straight C-USA match and are tied for first place in the league standings with a 2-0-0 record as conference play began this weekend.
In the 93rd minute LaGro lined up a free kick from just under 40 yards out on the right side and blasted away. The ball came in high at the goal's left corner and found a seam above a leaping SMU keeper to land in the back of the net. LaGro's second career goal was also her second in as many games after scoring in the C-USA win over Tulsa on Friday night. Sunday's game-winner closed out the overtime final and helped the Owls keep pace with fellow 2-0-0 C-USA teams Houston, UCF and UTEP.
"This is a tremendous win for us," said Rice interim head coach Nicky Adams. "SMU is a great team with great athletes and it means a lot to beat a team like that. It's important with home games that we get results. This whole weekend our girls played with so much heart and they fought all the way that I'm really proud of them. We always tell them to `go all-out for 90 minutes.' Well today they did that, plus a little more to win in overtime. It was awesome."
Rice set the tempo with some early offensive pressure. The Owls jumped on the scoreboard in the seventh minute and, with no shortage of foreshadowing, converted on direct free kick for a 1-0 lead. With 6:55 on the clock junior forward Hope Ward uncharacteristically stepped-in to take the free kick after an SMU foul. With something that is perhaps a little more familiar, the junior from Kingwood, Tex., found the back of the Mustang net.
"I usually don't take those set pieces," Ward explained, "but this time, I don't know, I just felt like jumping in-there. The whole team has been like that the last couple of games. We all want to contribute and we're all playing with a lot of confidence in each other. Everyone is taking it upon themselves to help get things started and it's been going well. We're playing good soccer."
At the end of 45 minutes Rice held an 8-5 advantage on shots and Ward had taken four, with one already going-in. The Blue & Gray worked to try and post its second-straight shutout with a solid second half, but the Mustangs would not go away so easy. In the 68th minute Pony defender Lauren Shepherd served a long free kick from the left side in front of the Rice goal where a flying Amanda Burgardt headed-in a shot from close range. Burgardt's second goal of the season knotted-up the game 1-1 and set the stage for the final act.
At the end of regulation Rice held a 16-9 lead in shots and a 5-3 edge in corner kicks. The first true shot of the extra frame was Lagro's free kick in the 93rd which brought the curtain down on the 12th career meeting between the I-45 rivals. It marked only the third time for Rice soccer to defeat SMU dating back to 2001, but LaGro stated the Owls had already planned to spend all their energy on getting to 2-0-0. In fact the standout from Plano West High School took the time to put in a little extra work on long free kicks just in case the Owls, maybe... possibly... on the off chance... might need just such a goal on a free kick to win a big game... and win it in overtime.
"I've been practicing those for the last couple weeks," LaGro said. "I've had a lot of good free kicks in practice and actually I didn't think this one was a very good ball, until it went in. It feels great to win today and Friday. We were definitely a little tired after going all-out to get Friday's win, but we also wanted this one and we weren't going to lose," the Dallas native said.
The Mustangs are now 5-4-2 overall and 0-2-0 in conference. SMU's Kenzie Scovill shared the game-lead in shots with four while keeper Courtney Webb made four saves.
The Owls close out the current five-game homestand with more conference matches next weekend. Rice next hosts longtime league foe and C-USA co-leader UTEP on Friday (Oct. 1) at 7 pm. The Blue & Gray then hosts Colorado College in another C-USA showdown on Sunday (Oct. 3) at noon.
The game's box score appears at the above links.