South Carolina has relied on its defense throughout its entire 2019 season, and the unit has delivered to the tune of 17 shutouts. It has counted on three-time SEC Defensive Player of the Year Grace Fisk to be the anchor of that defense in the middle.
In Sunday’s 2-0 NCAA Tournament Sweet 16, the No. 2 seed Gamecocks (19-1-3, 7-0-3 SEC) topped No. 3 seed Kansas (17-5-3 4-2-3 Big 12) at Stone Stadium thanks to Fisk contributing in an unexpected way.
South Carolina defenders Fisk (1), Anna Patten (3), Sutton Jones (2) and Tatumn Milazzo (1) have now combined for seven goals, the same number of goals the team has allowed all year.
“We ask a lot of them to start the attack,” South Carolina head coach Shelley Smith said. “You see Grace and Anna on the ball a lot. … Our outside backs are asked to get forward into the attack.
“They’re a big part of our offense. It was nice to see Grace rewarded with a goal.”
That goal came in the 63rd minute.
Gamecock winger Luciana Zullo drew a foul about 30 yards from the net, leading to a Lauren Chang free-kick attempt.
Defensive midfielder Jyllissa Harris ran over the ball before Lauren Chang fired a cross toward the left post, where Fisk headed the ball back across off the right post and into the net for the first goal of the match and her first of the season.
“I saw the position of the ball and I was like, ‘I have a good feeling about this,’” Chang said. “We’ve been practicing that ball to sort of give us an opportunity to not only get a shot off, but maybe get it across the frame [of goal] again. And Grace did a fantastic job of placing it.”
“Like Lauren said, it’s something we’ve been practicing,” Fisk said. “This season we think we could have gotten more goals off set pieces. We’ve really been trying to emphasize it in our training.
“We knew me and Anna [Patten], as the runners, we knew as they were lining up we were planning to do it. It was just putting your body on the line and trying to get something. I didn’t even see it. I was face planted on the floor. I just heard the roar and was really happy.”
It was Fisk’s first goal of the season and just her fifth career goal.
But it wasn’t the first time Fisk has come up clutch. Fisk scored the game winner in the Elite Eight exactly two years ago against Florida.
“I like this date clearly,” Fisk said. “I didn’t even know that, so that’s cool. … Like I said, I think I could have gotten more goals in the season. This was probably overdue anyway.
“I think when big games happen, you just need people to do what they can, and I think everyone did that today. If it wasn’t me, it would have been someone else.”
Fisk and her teammates sensed a goal was coming.
All game long, the outside backs — Jones, Sarah Eskew and Paige Mikula — had been linking up with forwards to get in behind the Jayhawks’ defense.
Fittingly, Eskew had arguably her best game of the season on her birthday. While she wasn’t credited with an assist on the play, Eskew fed Riley Tanner on the wing before Tanner beat two defenders on her way to scoring her third goal in as many games to put the game to bed.
Now, the Gamecocks await the winner of Washington St. and West Virginia. The winner of that matchup, which will be played on Friday at Stone Stadium, will advance to the College Cup in San Jose, Calif.