South Carolina may be known for its defense, and rightfully so, but it was the team’s offense and speed in the attacking third that made the difference in its NCAA Tournament second round victory over Notre Dame on Friday.
It started with winger Ryan Gareis.
Gareis was all over the place in the first 10 minutes of the match, winning balls and creating chances on the left flank. While Gareis only took one shot during the stretch, she was by far the most noticeable player on the field.
Gareis wasn’t the only one using her speed to wreak havoc on the Irish backline. Luciana Zullo, on the right wing, and Elexa Bahr, in the middle, used their speed for chances of their own. Bahr had a chance early as well but her shot sailed just high.
The trio, plus goal scorer Riley Tanner and the rest of the Gamecock midfield, led the team (18-1-3) to its 1-0 win over the Irish (11-8-2) in the Round of 32 matchup. The Gamecocks will host Kansas (17-4-3) in the Sweet 16 on Sunday at 2 p.m.
“It’s something we knew would be a way they could come at us. Ryan Gareis on the left side and Luciana Zullo [on the right], are extremely fast,” Irish head coach Nate Norman said. “They do a great job. Riley Tanner coming off the bench does a really great job.
“… They do a good job of running at us and making sure they create a lot of chances on those transition opportunities.”
And South Carolina comes in waves.
After 21 minutes, Gareis came off and Tanner — the team’s first substitution —and South Carolina lost no speed in the exchange.
“Our offense is deep,” Tanner said. “Which is good as the game progresses.”
“They all contribute at key times,” South Carolina head coach Shelley Smith said. “We have players that are stepping up in crucial moments for us, and that is what you want out of your attackers. I don’t think teams can really key on anyone specific. If someone’s open, we find them. Riley did a great job tonight to put the ball away.
“That’s the basis of our attack all year. I think our attackers have improved tremendously since we started in August. They’ve just been that much more dangerous.”
Tanner picked up right where Gareis left off. She was active and worked well in combination with Sam Chang leading to the eventual goal.
Chang intercepted the ball, passed it to Tanner, who laid it off to Bahr, who then touched it back to Tanner in behind the Irish defense. Tanner had a free run at goal and made no mistake depositing the shot into the left side of the net.
“We talked about before the game that when we had the ball, we still had to be aware of what they can do when they do win it,” Irish midfielder Sammi Fisher said. “I think our backline did a great job of standing them up and doing everything they could.”
The halftime break only rejuvenated the Gamecocks.
In the 49th minute, Gareis was given space to run, and run she did. She didn’t come close to a Notre Dame defender until after she ran 30 yards and into the Irish defensive box. Gareis laid a ball and that eventually settled at the feet of Lauren Chang, whose shot sailed high.
Minutes later, Zullo used her speed to beat her defender and win a free kick. On the ensuing kick from Lauren Chang, the Notre Dame goalkeeper bobbled the ball. Zullo was the first one there and forced a corner.
As the Gamecocks looked for an insurance marker in the last 15 minutes, Zullo returned to field and once again blazed down the wing. She had another shot at goal but was unable to find the insurance marker.
While South Carolina never found that insurance marker, it wasn’t needed as the defense stood tall and recorded the team’s 16th shutout of the season.