Oct. 11, 2012
The Memphis-Rice showdown, which featured teams that were in first place and tied for second in the conference (respectively) when the day began, was shown nationally on Fox Soccer Channel as the NSCAA Game of the Week. The Owls delivered a Game of the Week kind of performance to take-over first place in the standings and post the program's first road win at Memphis since joining the Conference USA in 2005.
The Owls were physical yet quick, controlled the tempo of play, and held possession of the ball for a clear majority of the contest. Rice finished with a 14-9 advantage in shots, but had held Memphis to just four shot attempts heading into the final five minutes of the game with a comfortable 2-0 lead.
Rice head coach Nicky Adams liked what she saw of the Owls, now 8-5-1 overall and 5-1-1 in C-USA. Adams' Division I coaching peers across the country, watching on TV, would be hard-pressed to disagree.
"I think this was a total team-win for us," Adams said. "Every player put so much effort into not only defending a Top 25 team, but attacking a Top 25 team. I am so proud of the team for keeping possession of the ball, winning the ball in the air, and finishing in the final third. Those were huge keys for us to beat this team they executed the game plan. We won battles. That created a lot for us going forward."
Senior defender Amy Beger moved forward to get in on the offensive attack and attempted a shot inside the 18. Memphis stepped in front and blocked Beger's shot, but ball bounded up and forward over the Tigers' defense. Freshman Lauren Hughes controlled the rebound 10 yards in front of the goal and improvised a chip shot over the keeper and into the back of the Memphis net. The score was Hughes' seventh of the year and gave the Owls a 1-0 lead in the 18th minute.
Rice took the 1-0 margin into the lockerroom at the intermission and then quickly added a second score in the second half. In the 49th minute Memphis cleared the ball away from traffic well outside the 18, but sophomore forward Gabriela Iribarne glided-in to take possession at a seemingly safe distance from the goal.
The distance was only seemingly safe. Iribarne gave herself some room on the right wing and unleashed a hard, low, shot from 30 yards. The ball streaked to the back of the Tiger net on the left side for a 2-0 lead.
"Two fantastic goals," coach Adams explained. "Lauren played a great game all night and found a way. She's creative, and she's also athletic enough that she can often do what she wants.
"Gabi's left foot is lethal," Adams added. "She put her head down and struck a beautiful ball. That was a huge goal to start the second half, just three and a half minutes in for a great momentum-builder."
There was still a lot of soccer left and Memphis would not go away so easy at home. The Tigers had three second half corner kicks to go along with eight shots.
For the second-straight match the Owl defense did not give-in and finished with a complete-game shutout. Sophomore goalkeeper Amy Czyz made two of her three saves in the second half and the backline of Beger, fellow senior Lauren LaGro, junior Hayley Williams and true freshman Jasmine Isokpunwu were sound and solid.
In holding a Memphis team that a year ago went 21-1-1 to no goals at home Adams described the backline's performance "phenomenal." Beger enjoyed particularly enjoyed Thursday's game, and said the improvement the team has made since say the team's opening game of the season - when the Owl defense allowed 24 shots at home to Baylor - is indeed substantial.
"We saw some of the best forwards in the conference and we were right there tonight," Beger said. "It's fun to play when you can execute what we've been working on and get a result against a very good program."
"How far have we come since opening day?..." Beger repeated the local reporter's question. "Wow, I know that was us, but I don't know if I would recognize that (Rice) team today. The difference is leaps and bounds. We're playing hard. We're playing smart. We're playing for each other."
With a new-look and style of play the Rice soccer team has worked its way into first place in the C-USA standings. The Owls conclude the weekend road swing with a C-USA game at UAB on Sunday (Oct. 14). Start time against the Blazers in Birmingham, Ala., is set for 1 pm.