ATHENS, Ga. – A goal in the 85th minute powered the University of Georgia soccer team past Liberty, 2-1, in the first round of the 2023 NCAA Tournament Friday evening before 1,483 spectators at the Turner Soccer Complex.
Graduate forward Hannah White and freshman defender Kiera Staude each put a goal on the board, with graduate midfielder Croix Bethune assisting on both. Bethune, redshirt freshman midfielder Summer Denigan and redshirt senior midfielder Nicole Vernis put up five shots apiece to lead the Georgia (12-4-5) offense. Five other Bulldogs posted shots on the evening as they outshot Liberty (16-3-1) by a 29-4 margin. Sophomore goalkeeper Jordan Brown tallied three saves in the 90 minutes of play.
“I want to make sure that we celebrate these moments because they are hard to come by,” Georgia head coach Keidane McAlpine said. “Our program’s history alone should tell them that we should celebrate this moment. Trying to make sure that we recognize that while still holding our standard. We didn’t execute the standard throughout the game, okay fine, but we still have to celebrate the moment and that shows the growth. That shows that we are heading in the right direction. That they expect to do more things in the game.”
The Bulldogs’ offense started strong, ripping five shots at the beginning of the first half before connecting on a goal. White opened the scoring for the entire NCAA Tournament in the 24th minute. Bethune snuck the ball past Flames defenders to White who dove to send the ball into the left corner of the net and put the Bulldogs on the board. Georgia limited Liberty to two shots in the first half.
“I feel like Liberty gave us a lot of space, so just being able to beat the person, and then my teammates making movements off the ball,” Bethune said. “I was able to find them in space for them to finish it in the back of the net.”
Georgia controlled the pace to start the second period with three shots on goal. The Flames balanced the board in 72nd minute with a goal from the baseline. Liberty did not have another shot for the remainder of the match, although all four of its shots were on frame.
“I think it’s really important. It’s not that we weren’t creating opportunities, and I think it’s worse when there are no shots on goal,” White said. “29 shots, yeah it sounds like a lot, but I would rather have 29, 40 or 50 shots than have two. I think, at the end of the day, it helps us move forward. When games get even harder, I think we won’t have as many opportunities. There will be smaller or lesser chances. I think that’s when we will be able to capitalize.”
Georgia picked up the momentum, notching nine shots in the following 10 minutes before Staude gave the Bulldogs the advantage for the win. Bethune had the ball at the top of the box in the 85th minute and chipped it over to Staude who sent the ball past a diving Liberty keeper to record her first career goal.
“I don’t usually take too many shots in game, but for some reason tonight, people told me they felt like I was going to score,” Staude said. “I kind of just started taking more shots. It was a really good lead-up, team goal. I’m proud of the team for that.”
The Bulldogs will now face the winner of Friday’s Iowa-Bucknell match in the NCAA Second Round. If top-seeded Clemson advances in the bracket, the match will take place at Clemson next weekend.