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ASU to host Arizona with more than NCAA Tournament implications on the line: ‘We hate them, they hate us’

Photo courtesy Arizona Athletics

Brooke Wilson and a few teammates were grabbing a bite to eat at Bear Down Kitchen Wednesday morning when an employee approached them.

“Who do you play this week?” he asked the throng of Arizona soccer players.

“ASU,” they responded.

“Oh my God,” he exclaimed. “Kill them!”

Such emotion is the norm during rivalry week.

“We hate them, they hate us,” said UA defender Samantha Falasco. “That focus is always so much different compared to any other game.”

But when Arizona ventures north to ASU (10-5-1, 5-3-1 Pac-12) on Friday, more than bragging rights will be on the line.

The Wildcats (11-5-2, 4-4-2) would likely secure the right to host the first round of the NCAA Tournament with a win.

The Sun Devils, 40th in RPI, could be knocked out of the postseason with a loss — or they could solidify their spot in the tourney and possibly prevent another UA home game with a win. (The top 32 teams host the first round.)

“I would really think that if we win we would host and be in a really good spot,” said UA coach Tony Amato, whose team enters 27th in RPI. “They’ve won 10 games. You beat a team that’s won 10 games, your RPI is not going to go down.

“But if we don’t get the result, I don’t know.”

And UA players don’t want to find out.

“Our focus this week is being able to crush them from not being able to go to the tournament, and then being able to work together as a team and just build off everything that we’ve worked on for this game,” Falasco said.

The Sun Devils are one of the hottest teams in the Pac-12, winning four straight entering Friday’s match, livening their once bleak postseason odds.

They have scored at least two goals in every game during that stretch.

“Those results have obviously broadened their shoulders and they seem really confident,” Amato said. “They have two forwards (Marleen Schimmer and Nicole Douglas) who are dangerous and score goals. So you have to deal with those two and they build from the back through midfield to get them the ball. You gotta be prepared to stop that or they’ll get those two the ball and it will hurt you.”

Arizona is coming off a split against the Oregon schools, including a disappointing loss to the Ducks, who have only won two conference games all season.

The Wildcats were shut out in Eugene, only mustering 12 shots, one of their worst offensive outputs of the year.

Before that, they had won three straight.

“I feel like we have been all over the place,” said UA forward Jada Talley. “We just haven’t been playing like I know we can play, so it’s a little bit frustrating because I know it’s not an effort (problem). I don’t really know what it is. You can’t really pin point it if it’s not effort.

“We had a really good practice session (Wednesday), one of the best we’ve had in a while, and Tony is trying to change us a little bit and how we press, and hopefully that will help Friday because something has to change.”

Amato said his team has to tune out the hubbub surrounding the rivalry and simply hone in on fixing the issues that plagued them in Oregon. He has a better idea of what they are.

“We gotta make sure we attack and defend as a unit,” he said. “It can’t be one person defending at a time or one person attacking at a time. The more you can get everyone on the same page, the better. That’s really what the focus has been.”

Arizona has won two straight against ASU, both games decided by one goal. That is par for the course in this series, as nine of the last 11 matchups have been decided by one score.

“It’s always a close game,” said Falasco, who scored the game-winner in a 1-0 victory in 2016.

Friday’s match (5 p.m., Pac-12 Network) will surely follow suit, because these in-state rivals are as even as can be.

Arizona is averaging 1.83 goals per game. ASU is averaging 1.75. The Wildcats have allowed 16 goals. The Devils have surrendered 17.

And their disdain for each other? Just as equal.

“These games feel different,” Talley said. “Even the parents are yelling at each other, fans are yelling at you, it’s a lot more loud, it’s more energetic. I feel more energized on the field because everything else is so psycho.

“I just want to win and bring it back to Arizona because I don’t want them to have any wins over us in any sport. I don’t like that school.”