It took UCLA women’s soccer more than one half to score all of its goals against San Diego State during their first bout this season.
That wasn’t the case Friday in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
The Bruins gained a crucial opportunity less than 16 minutes into the first half as a result of a foul by the Aztecs. Redshirt sophomore Anika Rodriguez took advantage of it, scorching a free kick into the top-right corner of the cage, disallowing the opposing goalie to bat it out of the goal.
It was all UCLA (16-2-2) from there on out, as the No. 2 seed downed the unseeded San Diego State (12-8-2) to eliminate the West Coast team from contention.
The Aztecs fared better against the Bruins than they did in their 5-1 loss earlier this season. But despite a sturdier defense at points, UCLA managed to notch a trio of goals from three different players.
Following Rodriguez’s cracker of a goal to help capture the lead, neither the Bruins nor the Aztecs could push past the opposing defense. But less than 10 minutes in the second half, junior forward Julia Hernandez cashed in on an opportunity.
Senior defender MacKenzie Cerda launched a line-drive cross into the box from the left side of the pitch. Hernandez gathered prime position in front of her defender and headed one into the left side of the goal to extend the lead.
After limiting San Diego State to just three shots in the first half, UCLA’s defense put itself in a good place to record its eighth shutout of the year.
The Aztecs eliminated any chances of that in the 63rd minute. Mia Root booted a shot into goal past sophomore goalie Teagan Micah to bring her team within one.
Then UCLA notched the dagger in the 85th minute.
Cerda shimmied past a defender into the left side of the box. She dribbled deeper into the box before curling a shot with her right foot past the goalkeeper. San Diego State failed to respond in the final few minutes, leaving the score 3-1.
UCLA is guaranteed a rematch if it reaches the Sweet Sixteen, as Pepperdine matches up against Virginia in preceding bout. But to clash with either team, the Bruins have to vanquish the Northwestern Wildcats (12-7-3), who triumphed over Butler in penalties.
Friday’s matchup might not be a war of attrition.
UCLA boasts one of the most potent offensive units in the nation, as it averages about 2.4 goals per game. Interestingly, the team’s top scorer – junior forward Hailie Mace – hasn’t even scored in the previous four matches.
The Bruins also possess other talented underclassmen in freshman forward Ashley Sanchez, who notched a goal in three of the past five bouts, and sophomore midfielder Jessie Fleming, who just returned after a few matches with the Canadian national team.
On the other hand, Northwestern relies on a stringent defense to tally victories. The Wildcats surrender less than one goal per game, on average, and have registered six shutouts in their past eight games.
Offensively, they do not boast a superior striking squadron compared to most teams across the nation. But they do have a weapon in Marisa Viggiano, who flourishes in the facilitating category, setting teammates up for easy goals. She leads Northwestern in assists with eight and pitched in two goals of her own this year.
The Wildcats have all contributed on the offensive end, as 13 players have notched at least one goal. But the regiment still struggled against top-tier squads, especially Penn State, who squashed Northwestern twice by a combined score of 5-1.
UCLA didn’t face any Big 10 squads this year, but the Bruins haven’t lost to a team from that conference since 2010. The club that defeated them? The Wildcats.
Drake Stadium will be packed, as UCLA has an opportunity to secure a spot in the Elite Eight by the end of the weekend. It would be the first time the Bruins reached that portion of the tournament since 2014.
This is your UCLA women’s soccer vs. Northwestern game thread.