Friday, 8:00 PM – (4) Texas A&M vs Utah
It’s a critical moment for G. Guerrieri and the Texas A&M program, as they perhaps have their best chance at an extended run in the NCAA Tournament in ages after having finished the regular season and SEC Tournament in smashing form. The Aggies struggled at times in the first half of the season and were squarely on the bubble for a while but put paid to those notions with nine wins in their final ten games in the league before a victory march in Orange Beach that ended with the club avenging their regular season defeat to Florida to lift the SEC Tournament trophy. The result of the late run was a national seed, though they may have been hoping for more than an engagement with a capable Utah side in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. The offense has truly found its voice as the season has gone on, scoring multiple goals in eleven of their last thirteen goals, helped in no small part by the rise of SEC Tournament MVP Liz Keester, who has really built momentum as the season’s gone along, culminating with three goals in the final two rounds of the SEC Tournament. Add in the craft of Shea Groom and wild card Kelley Monogue in the midfield, and opposing defenses will be very wary of an offense with the capability to explode for goals at the drop of a hat. Defense is a more pressing worry. The Aggies have kept just a single clean sheet in the past seven and just two in eleven and have shown vulnerability to sides with top notch strikers, such as in the 3-1 defeat to Pepperdine and Lynn Williams and in the 2-0 regular season defeat to Savannah Jordan and Florida. There may also be questions about how the club will handle stopping opposing playmakers. Moving Meghan Streight to the backline has worked out well there, with the senior starring at center-back. Replacement Janae Cousineau isn’t a slouch, but she’s not Streight. With Groom and Monogue so attack minded, there’s a lot of pressure on Cousineau to disrupt opposition’s passing games. The win over Florida in the SEC Tournament final probably allayed some fears of this team’s potential against top teams. Given this program’s track record in November though, they’ve still got much to prove in advance of a potential run to the College Cup. The road to Cary is littered with land mines in A&M’s quadrant, and I’m of the opinion that Texas Tech and Janine Beckie are quite the bad matchup for the Aggies and might just send the SEC Tournament champs home prematurely next weekend.
Shock third-place finishers in the Pac-12 this season, Utah has more than exceeded expectations after taking their lumps with a young squad in 2012. This season, the Utes have drawn with Kentucky, beaten second place finishers Washington State, and taken a point off of league champs UCLA. Still, it might have taken the club’s dramatic 2-1 win against Colorado to get the Utes into the NCAA Tournament, though the aforementioned draw with the Bruins obviously helped their cause. A stridently defensively focused club, the Utes conceded just fifteen goals all season and were among the league leaders in goals allowed in Pac-12 competition. Having one of the nation’s best goalkeepers in sophomore Lindsey Luke definitely helps, with Luke continuing to impress after a star turn in net for the Utes last year. There aren’t any superstars on the backline, but senior Jenny Hutton has been the closest thing to a rock back there after completing her fourth year as a starter for the Utes. Hutton can play anywhere on the backline and also had four assists as well. Utah probably could’ve hoped for a better draw than against the potent Aggies though, as they don’t boast too much firepower, 4-3 win against Washington State aside. They only finished fifth in the Pac-12 in league goals scored, and nobody on this club has more than five goals on the season. The most likely threats are Katie Taylor and Ashton Hall, who combined for eight goals on the year, but neither are going to be confused for top notch scoring threats any time soon. Utah’s best hope is probably for an outstanding performance from Luke and to hit the Aggies on set pieces and defend like hell. The team as a whole is short on experience in this setting though, and the Utes are still going to be going into this one as distinct underdogs.
Prediction – Texas A&M 1 – 0 Utah
Utah Tournament Prediction – First Round
Texas A&M Tournament Prediction – Second Round