- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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Which team made the biggest statement?
The enemy within did in Texas A&M's dreams of winning a national championship.
The enemy within the state of Texas, that is.
With this year's College Cup set for Aggie Soccer Stadium on the campus of Texas A&M, the hosts had a golden opportunity to play at home during the season's final weekend and win the Big 12's first national championship. Coming off a quarterfinal loss last season against North Carolina in which they pushed the Tar Heels as much as either UCLA or Notre Dame subsequently did in the College Cup, the Aggies spent much of this fall ranked No. 1 in the nation and cruised to a Big 12 regular-season title.
But a potential chink in the armor appeared in a 2-1 loss against archrival Texas in the final of the Big 12 conference tournament, a result that likely cost the Aggies a shot at a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Those would be the same Longhorns who showed up in Texas A&M's pod of four teams for the opening two rounds of the NCAA Tournament.
So while a typical unseeded team down a goal at halftime of a second-round game against the Aggies in College Station might have found itself fighting the pressure of the moment, the Longhorns found themselves on familiar footing despite the deficit.
"We weren't ending our college careers in College Station with A&M," Texas senior Kelsey Carpenter said. "There was just too much history, too much rivalry there to do that -- too much riding on that game."
On the strength of three second-half goals, including the eventual clincher from Carpenter in the 79th minute on a perfect pass from fellow senior Caitlin Kennedy, the Longhorns earned a 3-2 win, their second win in seven days against the Aggies, and a spot in the Sweet 16.
Last season it was the Longhorns playing the role of favorite, seemingly destined to make a run at the College Cup and the Big 12's first national title. A 17-3-2 record and the Big 12 "double" earned the Longhorns the bracket's No. 1 overall seed, but a loss at home against Portland in the third round prematurely ended the run. And while an early win this season against UCLA bode well for bouncing back, Texas looked a little like a team that had missed its window by the time it dropped a 2-0 decision to the Aggies in College Station in October.
"When we lost to them in October it was by far one of the worst games we've ever played," Carpenter said. "We gave no effort. We laid down and we let them run all over us. We watched the film the next day and it was embarrassing. Our coach was furious and we were mad at ourselves."
The effort was better in the first half of Saturday's game, but after an own goal off defender Kasey Moore's foot left them trailing at halftime, Carpenter said the Longhorns spent the break talking more about mentality than strategy.
Not surprisingly, in a game between two teams who knew each other too well to have any secrets, it was a pair of seniors who helped seal the deal after freshman Erica Campanelli tied the game with a header off a corner kick nine minutes into the second half. With less than 20 minutes to play, Kennedy lofted a ball from outside the box that floated over Texas A&M keeper Kristin Arnold and into the far corner of the net. Six and a half minutes later, Kennedy again pressed forward and slotted a pass between two defenders to Carpenter, who drove the ball home for the decisive goal.
After missing 20 games over the course of the last two seasons due to a variety of injuries, Kennedy found an undeniably memorable way to leave her imprint on the rivalry.
"I've played with her since I was 15 years old on club teams in Dallas," Carpenter said. "I think that just coming from being 15 years old, she's always been plagued with injuries. And for her to battle through everything she's had to battle through -- surgeries, injuries, sprains, tears, everything -- it was just awesome to see her get that goal in College Station and set me up for that last one [with] a perfect ball."
And now it's the Longhorns, as Carpenter put it, who hope to finish the NCAA Tournament in the same place they started it. Deep in the heart of Texas.
Another Rivalry Upset
Notre Dame dropped a 7-1 decision against Santa Clara earlier this season, but the Fighting Irish don't even possess the worst loss among the teams remaining in the NCAA Tournament. Just 16 days before they advanced to the Sweet 16 with Sunday's penalty-shootout win against Purdue following 110 minutes of scoreless soccer, Indiana found itself on the wrong end of a 7-0 score against their in-state rival.
The Hoosiers, for whom the Purdue rout represented the fourth loss in the final five games of the regular season, then lost a quarterfinal game against Ohio State in the Big Ten tournament and needed a goal in the second overtime period just to beat MAC champion Toledo in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Opponents had scored 32 goals against the Hoosiers entering Sunday's game, 20 more than Purdue allowed this season and three more than Purdue allowed in the last two seasons combined.
But in West Lafayette on this day, the Hoosiers came up with the stops they needed to escape regulation and both overtimes scoreless despite 24 shots and 14 corner kicks for the Boilermakers, in part thanks to eight saves from freshman keeper Lauren Hollandsworth.
Which team played better than it sang?
Off key or not, it's tough to imagine a moment at any other site that produced more spontaneous good vibes than University of Connecticut players belting out an impromptu a cappella version of the national anthem before going on to upset No. 4 seed Wake Forest 1-0 in Boston and move on to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2004.
The compact disc with the recorded anthem acted up after only a few seconds on Sunday afternoon at Boston College, leaving players, coaches and fans standing, and shivering, in awkward silence. Seizing their "American Idol" opportunity, several Huskies -- coach Len Tsantiris and senior Meghan Schnur singled out Amanda Schwartz and Alexandra Zedros as the ringleaders -- piped up to save the day and soon both teams were leading the crowd in a full-throated and remarkably accurate rendition of the anthem.
It might seem like a stretch to connect that moment of levity with the tense and often physical soccer that followed, but the Huskies survived without much offense for two games against battle-tested ACC teams from Boston College and Wake Forest in part because they never lost their composure or stopped playing with the same energy and spirit during the game that moved them to start singing before the game.
After playing nearly three hours of scoreless soccer (they beat Boston College on penalty kicks Friday after a 0-0 tie through regulation and overtime), the Huskies finally broke through when Elizabeth Eng converted a Wake Forest turnover into a goal in the 61st minute of Sunday's game.
The goal went to Eng and the assist to Brittany Tegeler, but sophomore Brianna Gray, who had just one assist and eight shots in 11 appearances before Sunday, helped turn the tide for Connecticut's offense in the second half. Time and again, Gray stretched Wake Forest down the right flank, creating the kind of possession deep in the Demon Deacons' end that ultimately put them in position to commit a costly turnover and prevented them from creating enough chances to tie the game in the final 30 minutes.
"She can be extremely effective whenever she feels confident," Schnur said. "I think that's a big thing for her is when she feels confident on the ball, you can see that she can take anyone on when she wants to. And I think we definitely did a good job of that in the second half, both getting her isolated one-v-one and we knew that if we could get her the ball, she could get in behind."
The Huskies didn't play a perfect game and didn't sing a perfect anthem Sunday, but led by Schnur and Taylor, two world-class players and world-class competitors who have as much fun dancing, wrestling and laughing before games as the last reserve, they proved yet again that opponents need to take them far more seriously than they take themselves.
Who were the weekend's individual stars?
Christina DiMartino, UCLA: The Bruins cruised to wins against Cal State Fullerton and Oklahoma State, outscoring their opponents 7-1 and outshooting them 37-13, all despite not having Lauren Cheney (red card in UCLA's final Pac-10 game) for the opener against Fullerton. DiMartino set the table for her teammates throughout the weekend, setting up four goals and finishing one herself in the two wins. Three of her assists went to players other than Cheney, Danesha Adams or Kara Lang, UCLA's big four, along with DiMartino, who have accounted for 46 of the team's 57 goals to date. The Bruins will be that much tougher to stop in the rounds to come if defenses can't key on just that quartet.
Nikki Krzysik, Virginia: As the cornerstones of the nation's stingiest defense, center backs Krzysik and Becky Sauerbrunn were big reasons why the Cavaliers found themselves in position to advance to the Sweet 16 for the third year in a row. So perhaps it's only fitting that Krzysik and Sauerbrunn ensured their team would make the most of that opportunity by taking care of the other end of the field as well. One senior assisted the other as Krzysik scored with 14 seconds left to break a scoreless tie against William and Mary.
Deana Everett, West Virginia: Teammate Ashley Banks shared Big East Offensive Player of the Year honors with Notre Dame's Brittany Bock, but Everett did her prolific partner one better in wins against Navy and James Madison. Everett scored twice in an opening 4-0 win against Navy and again on Sunday in a 2-0 win against James Madison. Banks did her part with two goals on the weekend, and between those two and fellow striker Kim Bonilla, the Mountaineers have a front line capable of putting pressure on any defense.
Whitney Engen, North Carolina: All of a sudden that North Carolina offense looks pretty potent. Granted, High Point and UNC Greensboro didn't represent quite the same challenge some other seeded teams faced in the opening two rounds (although Greensboro had as strong a profile as almost any mid-major), but goals are goals for a team that flirted with a record level of futility by North Carolina standards. Nikki Washington stepped up her production in the ACC tournament and added a goal and two assists over the weekend, but Engen earned top billing when she managed three goals in three different ways, scoring on a header, cleaning up a rebound and hitting one from distance.
Stephanie Labbe, Connecticut: Enough love for the goal scorers. Labbe made five saves in keeping a clean sheet against Wake Forest on Sunday, including a full-extension skyward swat in the closing minutes that denied the Demon Deacons a tying goal. And that was her easy game of the weekend. In the opener on Friday, Labbe made six saves in 110 minutes against Boston College and then added three more saves in a 4-3, eight-round shootout win.
What about next weekend?
While the rest of us pause to celebrate Thanksgiving … and then pause some more to digest all that food, 16 teams will spend the week getting ready for the third round. As mentioned last week, North Carolina and Notre Dame meet in the headliner, a rematch of last year's championship game, but that's not the only gem on the schedule.
Virginia at UCLA: The nation's stingiest defense meets college soccer's most star-studded offense. Virginia has allowed just eight goals in 22 games so far this season. The bad news is four of those goals have come in the team's last six games, a span in which the offense countered with just six goals of its own (four of which came in a first-round win against MAAC champion Loyola). Even perfect defense may not be enough against the Bruins, but it's likely a necessity for the Cavaliers to have any chance at all in Westwood.
Tennessee at Portland: The Lady Volunteers hit the road (yes, Portland actually gets a home game) with a chance to make the biggest statement in program history. Tennessee went 9-0-0 in the luxurious confines of new Regal Stadium in Knoxville but just 6-4-2 on the road. Now they head to as tough a road venue as any in the nation for a game against a team with as rich a history as any program this side of North Carolina. For coach Angela Kelly, whose team did manage a tie against USC in Los Angeles earlier this season, this is the kind of challenge that doesn't come around all that often.
Connecticut at Stanford: The only rematch of a regular-season game that we know we'll have in the third round (Penn State could make it two if it beats Hofstra on Monday in a game postponed by snow and advances to face West Virginia). The Huskies are one of the few teams to outshoot the Cardinal this season, but three extra shots weren't enough after Kelley O'Hara's goal in the 81st minute gave the Cardinal a 1-0 win in Boston way back before Labor Day. After spending all season on the back line, where she was named the Big East's best defender, Brittany Taylor split time between forward, center back and outside back in wins against Boston College and Wake Forest. After reacquainting herself with playing up top, she should be a key weapon as the Huskies continue searching for goals.
What was with all the conference rivalries?
This weekend belonged to the players on the field, and the focus coming out of the first two rounds ought to be on what players from Texas, Stanford and Indiana did right to help their teams win rematches against not just conference rivals but in-state arch rivals in Texas A&M, Cal and Purdue, respectively.
It's just a shame that in all three cases, especially with Texas-Texas A&M and Stanford-Cal, those teams met earlier than any objective standard of fairness should have allowed.
"It's unfortunate that we had to play them in the tournament," Carpenter said of meeting Texas A&M. "Postseason, you want to play teams from all over the country and see what everyone else has to offer. You don't want to play the same teams over and over again that you've played – we played them not even a full week before this game tonight."
A rule has been preliminarily approved at the NCAA level to ensure conference teams won't meet in the first two rounds, and it could be implemented as early as next season. To the NCAA's credit, that's a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, for seniors like Texas A&M's Ashlee Pistorius, Purdue's Shauna Stapleton and Cal's Caitlin Hannegan, the wake-up call came a year too late to matter.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.