Freshman Hallie Pearson was skittish all day as she waited to play in her first NCAA Tournament game.
Seconds felt like minutes. Minutes felt like hours.
“I was sitting in bed thinking about it, thinking about it, and it finally came,” said the Arizona defender. “It took me a little bit to get over the nerves.”
The same rang true for the rest of the team.
The Arizona Wildcats scored three second-half goals to overcome a shaky first half and beat Denver 3-0 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday at Mulcahy Stadium.
While the Wildcats were nervous to start, their confidence never wavered, despite being held scoreless in the first 45 minutes.
“(A goal) was going to come, it just hadn’t yet,” Pearson said. “We needed to fix a few things and after halftime I think we did.
UA senior Kennedy Kieneker knocked in a cross from Jill Aguilera in the 52nd minute to break the seal, kickstarting an offensive flurry.
A few minutes later, sophomore Amanda Porter netted a free kick from just outside the 18. Junior Kelcey Cavarra iced the game in the 74th minute by converting a penalty kick.
“The first half we spent a lot of time sticking at it and wearing them down. In the second half it was just waves of pressure that eventually we were going to breakthrough and we did,” said UA coach Tony Amato.
“And once you score the goal it changes things. We were on the front foot and they were under some pressure, and we scored two goals in five minutes and that flipped the game on its head.”
Arizona only mustered four shots in the first half, but finished with 17. Denver took two in the first half and only three in the second half.
“We changed formations,” Kieneker said. “We put an offset outside (midfielder), and Morgan (McGarry) was getting forward a lot too, so I think that messed them up and we got a lot more numbers forward.”
Denver’s leading scorer Samantha Feller broke loose for a breakaway late in the first half, but Pearson somehow chased her down and deflected a close-range shot to preserve the tie heading into the locker room.
“One of the things we’ve been working on this week is Tony would have us take a knee, and then as the play went on we’d have to sprint back and defend as fast as we could and not give up, and that’s what I was doing,” Pearson said.
“And she didn’t seem as confident as she was heading towards the goal, so I was just going to give it my all and hope that I get something on it to keep it out of the goal.”
Thankfully for the Wildcats, she did, because Feller had successfully evaded UA goalkeeper Lainey Burdett, leaving the net unguarded.
“It would have been different at halftime (if we were down) 1-0,” Amato said. “We would’ve been fine, but we definitely would have been feeling some of the pressure.”
Instead, it was Arizona who pressured Denver in the second half, finishing the period with 13 shots. Kieneker only had one, but it was all she needed to be the hero in her final home game.
“She would probably tell you this herself, but coming out of halftime I said, ‘you have to get a shot,’” Amato said. “She took her shot and it went into the back of the goal.”
Aguilera made it easy.
“I just saw Jill crossing the ball and I know when Jill is crossing it I have to get on the end of it because it’s always a good ball from her, so I did what I could to get in the box and got a foot on it,” Kieneker said.
A mistake by Denver goalkeeper Brittany Wilson led to Arizona’s second goal. She came off her line to corral a cross, dove forward and snared it, but her momentum carried her outside the penalty area, setting up a free kick.
Porter and Cavarra, who were teammates with Wilson at Columbine High School in Colorado, stood over the ball to take it, and Porter fired a laser on frame after Cavarra faked the shot.
Wilson got a hand on it, but hardly altered the ball’s path.
“It was unreal. I couldn’t even see the ball.” Kieneker said. “I literally saw it stopped (on the grass) and then in the back of the net. She took the keeper with it, too. It was crazy.”
Now up by two, the Wildcats sensed a victory was near. They just needed to add the finishing touches.
“I had one of those feelings right before she took it that I’m not going to have to move, it’s going in,” Pearson said. “But it wasn’t one of those things that we could get complacent on because if they get a breakaway and they score, they’re back in it.”
Denver did earn another breakaway, but Burdett made a kick save after coming off her line to silence the threat. She punched another shot over the bar later in the period, finishing with two saves.
Arizona’s Iyana Zimmerman, a freshman making her first career start, later drew a foul inside Denver’s 18, setting up Cavarra’s PK.
She had no trouble slotting it past her childhood friend.
“When Kelcey stepped up for the penalty, I’m sure (Wilson) has seen her take penalties before,” Amato said. “She did seem pretty quick to go into the other corner and Kelcey looked to switch up at the last moment. That’s what it looked like to me.”
The Wildcats will face No. 2 seed Tennessee on the road next weekend. It’s the second straight year Arizona has reached the Round of 32. They lost to Florida State last year.
Kieneker said the Wildcats need to maintain their win-or-go-home mentality to avoid a similar outcome.
“Last year against Florida State that kind of started to break down a little bit,” she said. “I don’t really think that’s going to be a problem this year with this group.”
Best day of her life
Brooke Wilson, who had been sidelined since early September with a broken leg, said if she played five minutes on Friday, it would be the best day of her life.
She played seven, subbing in during the final moments.
“I think it was great,” Amato said. “When someone gets hurt in a college season, you sprain an ankle, you could miss two weeks and four or five games. She’s been out two months and just to get her some minutes and get that under her belt is really important, because she’s basically missed her whole freshman year. ... She’ll have to keep working to get her fitness up.”
The freshman forward is one of Arizona’s top scorers. She scored three times in seven games before her injury.
Wilson was not available to the media after the game — NCAA Tournament rules only allow two players to be available, which is an interesting policy — but she agreed on Twitter that it, indeed, was the best day of her life.
“100%!!” she said. “Such a relieving moment!!”
Trusting the freshman
It was a memorable night for another freshman, too — Iyana Zimmerman.
Not only did she make her first career start and draw the foul that led to Cavarra’s penalty kick, she also tied a career-high in minutes (38).
But why insert her into the starting lineup with the season hanging in the balance? She earned it, Amato said.
“Just because it was an NCAA game I didn’t want to change our philosophy,” he explained. “She had trained well and played well in the last few games and it just felt like if she could handle the moment and her nerves, which I talked to her about earlier today, I knew she would perform and play well. ... It felt like there wasn’t a lot of risk there to get her in the lineup.”