Shelley Smith did something Sunday she had not done since the calendar turned to September: South Carolina’s head coach started a trio in the attacking third in a consecutive game for the just the second time this season.
Smith had an inkling the combination of Elexa Bahr, Ryan Gareis and Luciana Zullo would work.
“They have shown to be the most dangerous combination up top,” the coach said. “Their pace and the way they’ve been playing with each other, the combinations they’ve set up, I think it’s been the best.”
The trio played quality soccer and created momentum No. 8 South Carolina (9-1-0, 3-0-0) needed in its 1-0 victory over No. 13 Arkansas (7-2-1, 2-1-0). In a battle of SEC heavyweights at Stone Stadium, the Gamecocks scored just the third goal the Razorbacks have allowed all year and the first goal in eight games.
“We know it’s a quality opponent. You’ve just got to find a way to find the back of the net,” Smith said. “No matter who you’re playing, it’s never easy. But we knew what we may have, and if we made good decisions in the final third, we’d have some opportunities.
“And we eventually found one.”
South Carolina’s offense — facing a defense that has eight shutouts this season — had a handful of quality scoring opportunities but only truly tested Razorback keeper Katie Lund a few times until late in the match.
Sophomore Jyllissa Harris broke the standstill.
In the 78th minute, Gamecock forward Riley Tanner drew a foul about 25 yards on the right side of the field and, since she’s a left-footed player, took the ensuing free kick.
The sophomore sent a ball on goal near the left post, where Gamecock defender Grace Fisk rose from the crowd and headed the ball back toward the right side.
“A lot of players, I think, thought the ball was going out, and I just kept going for it,” Fisk said. “I managed to knock it back across and J-Y was continuing her run.”
“I don’t know how Grace did it, but she just rose up out of the crowd, played it back across and the defender in front of me kind of just missed the ball,” Harris said. “I knew I just needed any touch on it to get it in. I kind of threw myself at it.
“Whatever it takes to score.”
In the only game it lost the season, against Clemson on Sept. 15, South Carolina was held without a shot in the second half.
“We knew having barely any shots wasn’t good enough, and we’re never going to score if we don’t,” Fisk said. “That was definitely something we’ve been working on in practice.
“I think we deserved the win [because] we had some good chances and nice combinations up top. It came off a set piece, but I think a goal was coming nonetheless.”
Harris has now scored a goal in two straight games.
“It’s great to score a goal, but whoever gets it done, to me, is really the most important thing,” Harris said. “Two goals in two games is a great thing, but two wins is even better.”
The versatile 5-foot-8 Harris, normally a defensive-mindset midfielder, played center defense from the 71st minute until the 87th, but came forward for the free kick attempt because of her height.
“It’s key. Obviously we try not to take her off the field,” Smith said. “ … Jyllissa, we know what we can get out of her. On the back line, it wasn’t an issue at all to put her back there. We have complete confidence.”
But because of temperatures that reached the 90s, South Carolina rotated several players on the attack.
Bahr, Gareis and Zullo earned the start, but Tanner, Camryn Dixon, Lauren Chang and Samantha Meredith also saw time on the attack.
Tanner had three shots (two on goal), the most on the team in both categories, in 40 minutes.
“She came in and gave us a huge lift,” Smith said. “She’s very good on the ball and she did what she needed to do today. We had to be patient and make good decisions driving at defenders.
“We had space they were giving us, and she was composed enough to say, ‘OK, I can take players on. She did what she needed to do.”
SC worked the right flank of its attack early in the second half, with Zullo, Bahr and defender Tatumn Milazzo working several combination plays.
Zullo slotted Gareis into the 18-yard box, and the forward slid a pass out wide to Milazzo, who sent a shot wide of the net. Midfielder Sam Chang then had a corner kick opportunity that sailed by Anna Patten and Harris in the box.
Sam Chang then slid a pass to Tanner in the box, but the freshman sent a shot right at the Arkansas keeper.
But the home team finally broke through late in the match and continued its dominant streak at home.
Said Fisk, “We practice set pieces a lot in practice. We have a lot of tall players, so we’ve been trying a lot this season to try to get something off of them. It hadn’t quite happened yet in the games, but it was good for it today to finally pay off.”