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Arizona soccer falls to Tennessee in second round after furious comeback

Photo courtesy Arizona Athletics

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — An incredible comeback quickly turned into a heartbreaker.

Tennessee forward Danielle Marcano knocked in a corner kick with 55 seconds left to hand Arizona a 3-2 loss in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday, halting a furious rally by the Wildcats.

Marcano’s heroics came not too long after Arizona scored two goals within three minutes to tie the game late in the second half. Samantha Falasco scored on a set piece in the 78th minute and Kennedy Kieneker followed it up in the 80th minute by tapping in a cross from Morgan McGarry.

The Wildcats continued to push numbers forward after the equalizer and kept No. 2-seeded Tennessee on its heels, but the Volunteers earned a corner in the final minute and Marcano netted a deflected ball for her second goal of the night.

“We figured it’s the NCAA Tournament, we’re going to go for it and we left those attacking personalities in there, hoping we would grab the goal,” said Arizona coach Tony Amato. “And the goal that we gave up didn’t catch us with that, but it was a set-piece that we needed to defend, and soccer is a cruel game. It comes down to those pieces a lot of times and unfortunately tonight we will all sit on it, but we know that can happen.”

Arizona finishes the year with a 13-6-2 record, falling in the Round of 32 for the second straight season. The Wildcats were in dismay after the final whistle, with several players reduced to tears, but they were proud of their perseverance.

“I think we all just realized this can’t be the last game,” Kieneker said when asked what sparked the comeback. “Tony kept saying ‘get up, get up, get up’ and Sam really took advantage of that set piece and I think that really got everyone thinking we can actually do this.”

It would have been easy to give in, Amato said. Tennessee came out fast and furious in front of its home crowd, grabbing a two-goal lead in the 46th minute, scoring on a counter and a cross just 11 minutes apart.

But that’s not what Arizona soccer is about.

“Ever since I’ve been at Arizona, every team goes down fighting. That is not going to change,” Amato said. “We were down 2-0 and at halftime we talked about having the capability to fight and come back. The team stuck with it and kept grinding it out and chipping away. We got the goal, we gave them everything they could handle. Our players know it’s a fight and grind all the way, and it’s something I’m extremely proud of about our team all the time.”

The Wildcats overcame adversity all season — and even before it began. Their first practice back in August had to be moved to Kino Stadium because the field conditions at Mulcahy were unplayable. Arizona then stunningly dropped its season-opener to Albany, compounding on the nightmarish start.

Things easily could have spiraled out of control from there, but the Wildcats responded with seven straight wins, before they were hit with another obstacle when star freshman Brooke Wilson broke her leg and missed two months and starting defender Sabrina Enciso missed a couple weeks with an ankle sprain.

Yet, the wins piled up at a historic rate anyway. Arizona’s 13 victories are the third-most in program history.

“I think we’re always the underdogs,” said Kieneker, the winningest player in school history. “We didn’t have a field so we had to persevere through that. We were down 2-0, we persevered through that. Our team has gone through injuries throughout the season and people have stepped up. And I think that’s what I’ll remember most about this year: if we all want it, we can do it.”

Arizona is set to return all but two starters next season, losing Kieneker and star goalkeeper Lainey Burdett to graduation. That should set the Wildcats up for another postseason run — they have reached the tournament four times in five years — but the future is just too hard to predict, Amato said.

“It’ll be a new team dynamic,” he explained. “New players will come in, you don’t know what happens with injuries and so you just start the process of every single day trying to get a little better and that’s all you can do. You just don’t know how it’s gonna go.

“It’s really, really hard to win games at this level and it’s a matter of having the right players with the right mentality who buy into what you want to do, which we’ve had since we’ve been here, and you hope that this group can push on and carry the torch even further.”

Falasco believes they can. The talent and camaraderie are there. So is the desire to win, evidenced by their effort in Knoxville.

“We just need to keep building off each year,” the junior said. “It sucks that we’re losing our seniors, but we have an amazing group of girls and I know we all really want to keep fighting and we love to play, and we love playing for each other. That’s what we have going for us.”

Postgame interviews

Tony Amato on Arizona Soccer’s 3-2 loss to Tennessee in the second round of the NCAA Tournament

Posted by AZ Desert Swarm on Friday, November 16, 2018

Samantha Falasco and Kennedy Kieneker on Arizona Soccer’s loss to Tennessee in the second round of the NCAA Tournament

Posted by AZ Desert Swarm on Friday, November 16, 2018