Lauren Chang paused for a moment to let Jyllissa Harris cross in front of her before letting her free kick from about 30 yards out sail into the 18-yard box. The South Carolina midfielder, with her ever-so-perfect touch, played the ball over three Kansas defenders and onto the head of teammate Grace Fisk.
Fisk outmuscled Kansas defender Isabella Cavalcante, jumped high and met the ball with her head about 10 yards from the net. The ball redirected the opposite direction, just off the right post and into the goal.
On a dime, Gamecocks Luciana Zullo, who caused the foul that led to the free kick, Ryan Gareis, Elexa Bahr and Claire Griffiths turned and sprinted to celebrate.
“It’s about putting your body on the line and trying to get something,” Fisk said. “I didn’t even see it [go in]. I was face planted on the floor. I just heard the roar, so I was really happy.
“But it was a great ball in and I was really happy to [give us a lead].”
Fisk’s goal in the 63rd minute and an insurance goal from Riley Tanner in the 76th led No. 2 seed South Carolina (19-1-3) to a 2-0 NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 victory over No. 3 seed and Big 12 champion Kansas (17-5-3) on Sunday at Stone Stadium. It’s the team’s seventh consecutive shutout.
With the win the Gamecocks advance to play Washington State (14-6-1), a team that knocked off the quadrant’s No. 1 seed, Virginia. Because Virginia was knocked out, South Carolina will host the Elite Eight matchup — for the second time in three seasons — on Friday at 6 p.m.
“It says a lot about the program for sure, and the players who have helped build this,” South Carolina head coach Shelley Smith said. “And the players that are continuing to be consistently strong in the upper level of college soccer.”
Gamecock keeper Mikayla Krzeczowski recorded her 50th career shutout. It’s her 16th this season, moving her past Mollie Patton (2009) for the program’s single-season all-time record.
Tanner’s goal gives her three for the NCAA Tournament, tying her for second in program history for all-time goals (three) in the tournament.
Despite a slow start from South Carolina’s attack, Zullo created several counters with her speed on the right flank. She finally broke through in the 63rd minute and was fouled by Maierhofer.
“I have a good feeling about this,” Chang thought to herself when she saw where her free kick attempt was from.
That feeling became an even better one seconds later when her cross found the head of her roommate, and an even better one when the redirection crossed the goal line just inside the right post.
Thirteen minutes later, Gamecock defender Sarah Eskew played a ball on the left side through to Tanner, who nutmegged both Cavalcante and Grace Wiltgen before beating Kansas keeper Sarah Peters to her left.
Kansas outplayed South Carolina in the first half but could not connect in the final third. The Jayhawks outshot the Gamecocks 6-4 and won three corner kicks to the home team’s one.
It was a physical 45 minutes.
South Carolina had six fouls in the half, while Kansas had five, including one yellow card in the 39th minute.
Kansas had 57 percent of its possession across midfield, compared to 52 from South Carolina, but the Jayhawks clearly had better chances.
Katie McClure, the team’s leading goal scorer (17) who scored a hat trick in the team’s Round of 32 win, and Ceri Holland, an All-Big 12 second team member, has chances. Holland sent a shot on net that Krzeczowski saved just a minute and 35 seconds into regulation.
Holland tried for Kansas defender Sophie Maierhofer on a corner kick try minutes later but South Carolina defender Sutton Jones cleared it away. Gamecock midfielder Rebecca Koch then deflected aside a Samantha Barnett shot.
“They’re a dangerous team,” Smith said at the podium while Fisk sat next to her and let out an agreeing, exaggerated sigh of relief. “They’re in this position because of all the goals they’ve scored. All their players are quality players.
“… At the beginning of the game, I thought it was a true chess match. They had the ball, they took it at us, they looked threatening.”
South Carolina’s shots, on the other hand, came mostly from outside the 18-yard box.
Chang and Claire Griffiths each sent a shot from outside the box that were easily corralled by Peters, as was a free kick try from Harris.
But South Carolina capitalized when it needed.
“What a great game. It’s what you expect at this time of year on this stage at this time of the tournament,” Smith said. “Kansas showed how strong they are and why they deserved to be in the top 20 all year and gave us a great game.
“I’m just really proud of our team to come out on top today. Knowing that we earned another chance to be home is an amazing feeling.”