The chilly weather conditions in Knoxville wasn’t the only uphill climb the Tennessee women’s soccer team faced on Friday night.
Playing the role of comeback kid for a large chunk of the regular season’s stretch run, the Vols would find themselves in another uphill battle as they hosted the Louisville Cardinals in the first round of the 2018 NCAA Women’s Soccer Championship.
Khadija Shaw netted two second-half goals, including a game winner in the match’s 85th minute, as Tennessee overcame Louisville 2-1 to advance to the second round.
The win marks Tennessee’s second consecutive victory in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament, following a 2-0 victory over Murray State a year ago.
“I’m very proud of our team,” head coach Brian Pensky said. “We were disappointed to be trailing at the half…but there was a belief amongst our team that we could come back and win.”
Looking to bounce back from an early exit in last week’s SEC Tournament, Tennessee’s fortunes were turned upside down during the match’s 19th minute, as Emina Ekic’s shot found the back of the net.
Little did the Vols know that their misfortunes were only beginning at that point.
Despite playing the role of the aggressor, Tennessee was unable to log a goal in the first half, even though the Vols were leading in total shot attempts 6-4.
Heading into the intermission down 1-0 at home for the third straight game, a familiar sense of calm and determination overcame them.
“We talked at halftime about our forwards being tighter so we put a little more stress on their centerbacks,” Pensky said. “We just tried to make sure our forwards and attacking midfielder are tight and together.”
The Vols would soon face another challenge as the first half neared its close when Anna Bialczak went down with a non-contact knee injury and was carried off the field by UT training staff.
Adversity would once again rear its head early in the second half when Vignola’s left knee collided with a Cardinals defender, forcing a second premature exit for Tennessee in a win-or-go-home situation.
That’s when Shaw stepped in and let her voice be heard.
“When we saw both of them were out, we gathered together and agreed to work triple,” Shaw said. “It was unfortunate, but we knew we had to work for them.”
As she has in many situations this season, Shaw knifed her way through the opposing defense to notch the tying goal with just under 16 minutes left on the clock.
She wasn’t finished there, either.
After getting ahead of her defender during the match’s waning minutes, Shaw hooked a shot above Louisville goalkeeper Gabrielle Kouzelos’s outstretched arms that curled through the net at the last possible moment.
Showered once again by a mob of white jerseys, the Spanish Town, Jamaica native continues to ride an emotional wave of momentum that has carried her to the heights of collegiate and international soccer.
Despite her individual success, Shaw credits her teammates and the home crowd for giving the Vols motivation when they needed it the most.
“Even when we were one goal down, the crowd was still telling us we could do it,” Shaw said. “When you have someone behind you, pushing you through the whole game, it gives you a boost.”
The Vols will now play a second-round matchup at Regal Stadium.