Riley Tanner accepted Rebecca Koch’s lead pass deep in the southeast corner of the field at Stone Stadium and did, what South Carolina women’s soccer fans have become accustomed to, what the dynamic Riley Tanner does.
Her first touch, with her left foot, slid between the feet of Kansas defender Isabella Cavalcante — a move, in soccer circles, known as a nutmeg. As the ball crossed into the 18-yard box, Tanner did it again, sliding the ball between the feet of Jayhawk defender Grace Wiltgen.
Before she took on another defender, Tanner trickled a close-range shot by keeper Sarah Peters and into the right side of the net.
“The first girl was coming right at me, so the only thing I could do was put it through her legs,” Tanner told Gamecocks Online. “The next girl was coming hard, and I had to cut through her, too. From there, I got my head up and saw the goal and finished.”
The goal in South Carolina’s Sweet 16 victory over Kansas was the continuation of a sensational NCAA Tournament for Tanner, which she will look to continue Friday when the Gamecocks (19-1-3) host Washington State (15-6-1) in the Elite Eight at 6 p.m. (SEC Network +). The winner will advance to play in the College Cup in San Jose, Calif. next weekend.
“We’ve known what Riley’s capable of. … You can build off good moments you’ve had, and she’s done that,” South Carolina head coach Shelley Smith said. “ … Experience is valuable, and that’s what she’s been able to do, grow and build upon the things we’ve talked to her about.
“You watch her finish those goals, she’s excellent. Composed. If she can put herself in those spots, we have confidence in her that she’s going to put the ball in the back of the net.”
Tanner has been a sensation for South Carolina during its NCAA Tournament run. She scored just two goals during the team’s regular season, but has scored three, and assisted on another, over the team’s last three games.
“She’s been really, really good recently coming off the bench and giving us that spark,” Gamecock defender Grace Fisk said. “ … When [starter Ryan Gareis] gets tired, Riley can come in and really show out for us. I think that’s shown, especially in the last couple of games, sort of her quality.”
Added midfielder Lauren Chang, “She has a new swagger, and new confidence to her, and it shows. Because when we get her in wide positions and it’s just her and an outside back, I run for the box, because I know she’s going to beat that player.
“I’m very confident in her and our wingers’ ability to beat outside backs right now. That’s been a really integral part to our attack right now, and it’s been working well.”
Other than former South Carolina All-American Savannah McCaskill (2014-2017), Tanner is the only Gamecock to score goals in three straight games since 2013.
“Savannah was the face of this program,” Tanner told Gamecocks Online. “I always watched all those games and loved to watch her play. Coming in here, I wanted to be like her.
“The best part of the last couple weeks is the confidence it has given me. It’s made me mentally strong, which is very nice. I feel good. Confidence is so big for me.”
That confidence has grown more and more with each game, especially since Oct. 27, when Tanner scored in the 83rd minute against rival Florida, the No. 20 team in the country at the time, in Gainesville, to tie the score at 1-1 and allow the Gamecocks to remain undefeated in SEC play.
After she assisted on South Carolina’s first goal of the Tournament in its 3-0 win over Samford, she scored in the 81st minute on an assist from Chang.
She then scored the team’s lone goal in its Round of 32 win over Notre Dame.
In the 41st minute against the Irish, Tanner took on a pass from teammate Sam Chang and immediately redirected it to Elexa Bahr. She then sprinted toward the net and took a lead pass from Bahr just inside the 18-yard box.
The sophomore let the ball slide ahead of her before she booted it with her left foot into the left side of the net.
“I was looking, obviously, to go to goal, and Lex played a great ball though,” Tanner said. “I just did my job as a forward and finished.”
“She’s going that forward mentality,” Smith said. “And she’s going to have another great year next year.”
Next year, with the graduation of the team’s current striker Elexa Bahr, Tanner could slot into a starting position as the team’s center forward. Smith said Wednesday that Tanner could “easily start for us up there.”
“She’s proven to be one of our best finishers,” the coach said. “ … She’ll continue to do that for us. Next year, we’ll see, but she has a bright future.”