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Arizona women’s soccer ties No. 1 UCLA for first time in school history

The Wildcats are for real

Photo courtesy Stan Liu/Arizona Athletics

As the final seconds of the second overtime period ticked away, Lainey Burdett got down on a knee, scooped up the slow-rolling ball coming toward her, and hugged it tightly.

They did it.

The Arizona Wildcats had tied No. 1 UCLA, overcoming a 2-0 deficit to earn a 2-2 draw against the unbeaten Bruins.

“Sometimes ties feel like losses and sometimes they feel like wins,” said UA head coach Tony Amato. “When you’re down 2-0 against the No. 1 team in the country and come back 2-2, it feels more like a win.”

That and it was also the only time Arizona has ever tied UCLA. The Bruins (11-0-2) entered Sunday’s match with a 22-1 all-time record against the Wildcats.

“We just fought and fought for 110 minutes,” said UA forward Hannah Clifford. “It definitely feels like a win for us.”

It would have been easy for the Wildcats to give in.

After taking a 1-0 lead in the 21st minute, UCLA tacked on a second goal on a penalty kick just eight minutes later.

Arizona was almost defeated right then and there.

“If it goes 3-nil into halftime,” Amato said, “no matter what you say I don’t think they’re going to buy into it.”

Looking for any way to give his team a burst of energy on a cloudless, 90-degree day, Amato subbed in a group of eager freshmen — Clifford, Jada Talley, Amanda Porter, and Jill Aguilera.

A change that immediately paid dividends.

Clifford scored her first career goal in the 36th minute, and Arizona went into halftime down just 2-1.

“They gave us a lift,” Amato said of the freshmen. “Within 30 seconds of them coming on, we scored the goal. That gave us an uptick. If we kept plodding along, didn’t make those changes, and they scored the third goal, we would have been in some big trouble. The fact that group came on and grabbed the goal changed everything.”

The Wildcats now had hope. Maybe even more than that.

“It allowed us to continue to believe that we could do what we did and pull out a tie or even a win,” Clifford said of her goal. “We believed we could win it.”

UCLA came out aggressively in the second half, ringing a shot off the post in the 48th minute.

That led to another change by Amato, only a tactical one this time. He subbed in Leah Carillo, removing a forward for an extra defender on the back line.

“It felt like we could create enough chances with two (forwards) if we could lock it up and stay in the game in the back,” Amato said.

“And when (UCLA) couldn’t solve it, it just made more sense to stick with it.”

With five in the back, the Wildcats’ defense held firm and in the 65th minute, Talley crossed the ball to Porter, who knocked in the equalizer from short range.

“That was super exciting,” Clifford said. “Honestly, I might have been more excited about that goal (than mine). It meant so much to be tied with them.”

But UCLA, which outshot Arizona 20-10 in the match, looked like it was going to break that tie just six minutes later.

A handball by UA’s Morgan McGarry in the box awarded the Bruins a second penalty kick.

And who better to take it than Hallie Mace, the Pac-12’s leading scorer who tallied the game’s first goal?

But as Mace swung her leg forward, Burdett dove to her right and knocked the shot away.

The UA goalkeeper then hollered “let’s go!” as she pumped her fist.

“That’s ridiculous,” Amato said. “That’s one of the best goal scorers I’ve seen step up to take the penalty, and she smashed it — it was low and hard – and (Burdett) still made the save. You can’t say enough about that.”

“That was the most amazing save I think I’ve ever seen,” Clifford added.

Burdett, who made eight saves in the match, came up big throughout the day, and made another diving save in the 102nd minute, capping off another strong week of play after the junior was last week’s Pac-12 Goalkeeper of the Week.

“She’s the best goalkeeper,” Clifford said. “She’s so good. She saves our butts all the time. Every single game.”

Unlike Thursday’s match when Arizona lost to No. 6 USC on a penalty kick with 90 seconds left in double overtime, the Wildcats were able to hold off the top-ranked Bruins and preserve a well-earned draw.

Arizona now sits at 5-4-3 overall and 2-2-1 in the loaded Pac-12 — 26th in RPI.

In the last two weeks alone, the Wildcats have gone toe-to-toe against the league’s top four teams: No. 2 Stanford, No. 11 Cal, No. 6 USC, and now No. 1 UCLA.

“And it’s not just one game,” Amato said of the tie vs. UCLA. “We were on the back end of three highly-ranked opponents. That’s hard on the players and the staff, and to be able to push through that is big time.”

And something the rest of college soccer world should take note of.

These Wildcats are for real.

"It proves something,” Aguilera said. “We’re not the Arizona team that people think we are. We’re a lot better than people think we are. It’s obviously shown in the past four games."

Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire