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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Virginia Tech’s Sara Goodwin cradled the ball on the right side scanning for a teammate to connect with. Amid a 15-minute scoring drought, the Hokies needed a goal, and Goodwin eventually passed it inside to Whitney Liebler, who appeared to find a soft spot in the middle of the Syracuse zone.
But seconds later, two Orange defenders crowded Liebler, who attempted an audacious behind-the-back shot that sailed over Asa Goldstock’s goal. The Hokies gathered the loose ball with the shot clock trickling down and threw a desperation heave. Once again, a Syracuse defender was there — this time Sarah Cooper used a quick stick-check to force a turnover. She took a stick to the face, but she ended yet another Hokies’ attack and sent Syracuse the other way.
“It was one of those days (where) our defense was super dialed in, (and) our offense was a little sluggish,” head coach Gary Gait said.
No. 2-seed Syracuse (13-2, 8-2 Atlantic Coast) kicked off its ACC Tournament with a 9-4 win over No. 7-seed Virginia Tech (5-11, 1-8). It was the Orange’s second game without Megan Carney, who will miss the rest of the season with a torn ACL. But with a relatively stagnant offense, compared to the rest of the season, SU’s defense stepped up in the victory to send the Orange into the ACC semifinals.
“Our defense was the star. They were the star of the game. You got to applaud Coach (Defliese) and her D for holding them to four goals,” Gait said. “Any ACC team that you can hold to four goals, that’s a great day.”
SU’s defense on Wednesday made up for Carney’s production. The unit held Virginia Tech to just one goal and four shots on goal in the first half. The Hokies averaged 10 goals per game in the regular season, but struggled to generate any kind of offense all game.
A large part of the defensive success came through Cooper, Kerry Defliese and Ella Simkins. All three were named to All-ACC teams this week and proved their worth with standout first half performances that helped hold the Hokies to just one goal in the first 30 minutes. The trio each had at least two caused turnovers, while Defliese had two ground balls and Cooper had three in the first half. All three gathered more ground balls in the first half alone than their game averages.
On one clear attempt by Virginia Tech, Meaghan Tyrrell jumped and raised her stick to tip the pass away, and Emily Ehle scooped the ground ball. That play resulted in a quick transition to offense, where Emma Ward sent her shot right at the goalie’s stick, a missed opportunity among many for the offense on Wednesday evening.
Our defense was the star, they were the star of the game, you got to applaud Coach (Defliese) and her D for holding them to four goals. Any ACC team that you can hold to four goals, that’s a great day.
SU head coach Gary Gait
Having finally broken a near 27-minute drought through Paige Petty, Virginia Tech looked to start a run of its own. The Hokies intercepted a long errant pass by Goldstock and began to run the other way with numbers on their side. Emma Crooks ran down the middle and attempted to lob a pass over the head of Simkins. Simkins jumped into the air as the ball floated over her head and tipped the pass, gathering it on her way down.
After the Orange successfully cleared the ball, they made they way to Sierra Cockerille on the left side of the scoring area. Sam Swart made a diagonal cut across from Cockerille and after a quick lob pass, Swart sent her shot low and into the goal. The goal kickstarted a 3-0 run for the Orange, one that helped them build a sizable six-goal lead on the Hokies.
“We were off a little bit on the O-end, but that’s why you play offense-defense,” Gait said. “When your O is not firing on all cylinders, your defense picks it up and that’s what happened today.”
Virginia Tech tried over and over to replicate its first goal where Paige Tyson darted into the Syracuse zone and received a pass before dunking the ball over Goldstock’s head. But as the Hokies chased the game, and Tyson continued to make the same run, the Orange were ready. Tyson started on the left side of the offense and then cut across toward the cage. Her teammate sent a quick pass to her, and as she corralled the ball and wound up for a shot, Allyson Trice stick-checked Tyson and Goldstock picked up the ground ball. Tyson tried to follow through with her shot, but the ball had already fallen out of her stick.
When the Hokies did manage to find soft spots in the defense, Goldstock used her positioning to make key saves and scoop up ground balls away from attackers. When the game was still tied at 1-1, Crooks — VT’s second-leading scorer — crept into space in front of the goal. A teammate found Crooks, and she rifled a shot at goal that seemed like it would give the Hokies a lead. Instead, Goldstock used the shaft of her stick to pop the ball in the air and snatch it. “Asa Goldstock played great,” Gait said.
On a night where Syracuse’s offense scored its lowest goal total in a win this season, the defense put together one of its most complete performances of the season. After Emma Tyrrell scored to make it 2-1, the Hokies couldn’t find openings in the defense and tie the game. Virginia Tech had just nine shots on goal to finish the evening.
For the fifth time in the last six games, Syracuse held an opponent to single-digit goals. In a game where Syracuse was heavily favored, the offense struggled, but the defense stepped up to stave off a potential upset.
“You rely on your offense sometimes, and sometimes you rely on your D,” Gait said. “What you’re hoping for is you put both ends together for 60 minutes.”
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