Gabriela Iribarne scored a pair of goals and fellow senior goalkeeper Amy Czyz notched her fourth-consecutive complete game shutout to pace the Rice soccer team to a convincing 2-0 victory over North Texas and claim the championship title of the Conference USA Tournament Sunday in Charlotte, N.C. The Owls have clinched C-USA's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament starting next week at 32 institutions across the country.
Rice will be making the program's third trip to the NCAA's 'Big Dance' after claiming the school's second C-USA tournament crown. The Owls enter national postseason play with a 14-3-3 record and the winners of seven-straight, five by shutout including the three games in the conference tournament. Playing as the tournament's number two seed, the Owls opened with a 1-0 win over Western Kentucky on Nov. 5. The team blanked Louisiana Tech 1-0 in the semifinals on Friday and clipped North Texas on Sunday in the championship match televised live by FOX Sports Net.
Iribarne and senior Ashton Geisendorff were named the tournament's most valuable offensive and defensive players, respectively. Geisendorff anchored a Rice defense that continued its shutout streak as the Owls did not allow a goal during the tournament. Forward Lauren Hughes and Czyz rounded-out Rice's four honorees on the all-tournament team.
The Owls controlled the tempo early and took the game's first seven shots. In the 21st minute, senior Quinny Truong carried the ball down the center of the field before lining a pass to Iribarne open on her left. Iribarne needed only a quick touch or two before slotting a hard, low, left-to-right shot to the back of the North Texas net for a 1-0 advantage.
Rice was playing well, but the Blue & Gray also wouldn't have minded just a little more insurance. The same senior duo doubled the margin in the second stanza. In the 64th minute Troung again found Iribarne on the left side, who rifled her second shot of the day back across goal and into the back of the net, despite the attempt by the Mean Green defense to clear the ball off the line.
The Owls were up 2-0 for its biggest lead in any of the week's games, and held firm for its 11th shutout of the season. Rice went on to finish with a 17-9 lead in shots and a 4-1 advantage in corner kicks.
"I am just so proud of this team," said Rice head coach Nicky Adams. "They put in a lot of hard work in the preseason, and even going back long before that to last spring, and they just stayed focused on our goal of winning the conference championship.
"We depend on (junior forwards) Lauren Hughes and Holly Hargreaves, and it make sense that they always draw a crowd of defenders," coach Adams said. "I thought North Texas did a really good job with those two today, but we have other players. We're a team. The team stepped-up and won the game by playing together.
"How about these seniors?," Adams reflected on her very first recruiting class when she was named the head coach in 2010. "Gabi scored both goals. Quinny had both assists. Amy didn't allow any goals all week. Ashton was a sensational choice as the Defensive MVP, keeping us organized so that teams were barely able to take good shots. In four years that class has now won a conference regular season title and a tournament title. They're the foundation of what our long-term goal is for Rice Soccer.
Czyz officially finished with three saves on the way to her tenth solo shutout was the 28th of her collegiate career. The Danville, Calif., native posted her school-record 41st victory as the Rice keeper.
C-USA regular season champion North Texas (16-5-1) was shutout for only the third time all season. The Mean Green were impressive in their determination to keep battling despite losing all-conference goalkeeper Jackie Kerestine in the game's 30th minute when the score was still just 1-0. She led a trio of North Texas players to all-tournament honors.
It's not unreasonable for the top two teams of a tough soccer conference to continue their respective seasons into the NCAA Tournament. Fans are invited to join the Owls in Tudor Fieldhouse on Monday, Nov. 10, to watch the official NCAA soccer selection announcement. The selection show broadcast is slated for 3:30 pm central time on NCAA.com. Fans are also encouraged to greet the C-USA Tournament champs in front of Tudor Fieldhouse during their expected their expected arrival time between 1:50 to 2 pm.