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Arizona soccer beats ASU again to avoid NCAA Tournament bubble

The Wildcats have done enough to make the NCAA Tournament, but will they host?

Photo by Ryan Kelapire

There was frustration, there was panic, and then there was relief.

Jada Talley scored in the 82nd minute to propel Arizona soccer to a 1-0 win over ASU and mercifully end an agonizing stretch of offense.

The Wildcats logged 22 shots and 14 corner kicks against their in-state rival, but had nothing to show for it until Talley broke the seal with her 10th goal of the season.

“Those numbers are frustrating if you only have one on the scoreboard,” she said. “We were peppering them all night, all second half, and we got one. Finally.”

A short cross from Emily Knous set up the game-winner. Talley collected the pass near the edge of the six-yard box and slotted her own rebound inside the far post after her initial shot was deflected.

“I don’t know what I did on the first time,” Talley said, “but thankfully I got a second chance.”

Arizona has now won four straight against ASU dating back to 2016. A record-breaking crowd of 1,365 flocked to Mulcahy Stadium for Friday’s rivalry game, including a large contingent of boisterous, yellow-clad Sun Devil fans.

The bleachers were so packed that people were camped along the sidelines, creating a playoff-like atmosphere. It was a fitting scene considering the match held major postseason implications.

“It’s the best game of the year,” said senior defender Samantha Falasco. “And I mean it’s pretty amazing that we’ve been able to win each year that I’ve been here.”

Their latest Territorial Cup win makes the Wildcats a virtual lock to reach the NCAA Tournament. The only question now is whether or not seniors like Falasco, who cried after the game, will get another chance to play at Mulcahy.

The top 32 teams host the first round of the NCAA Tournament but the Wildcats entered the week 40th in RPI.

“We’re right there on the border of hosting,” said coach Tony Amato. “So I think some of it will come down to some other results across the country. Some of it will come down to geography. Are we an outlier? Can we get shipped to someone that makes sense or does someone get shipped to us? But we’re right there.”

Had the Wildcats lost to 130th-ranked ASU, they would have been a bubble team. And if Talley hadn’t come through in the 82nd minute, maybe that’s their reality right now.

“You could have one chance in a game and that can be your one goal,” Talley said. “Soccer’s weird in that way. Sometimes the team that played better doesn’t even get the win that night. But I’m happy we got it.”

Arizona clearly was the better team, outshooting the last-place Sun Devils by 15.

The Wildcats sent cross after cross into the box in the first half but an ASU defender was always there to block the ensuing shot. UA appeared to break through in the 44th minute but Brynn Moga‘s header was waved off.

“They were just really dropping numbers behind the ball initially,” said outside back Morgan McGarry. “So the formation they were playing, they had their four backs and you could hear their coach saying, ‘make sure you drop’ so they don’t let the ball go over their head.”

Arizona’s second-half adjustments were minimal but effective.

“The message was that we’re doing everything right, we just need to win the second ball,” Talley said. “So I feel like Tony was right in that sense that we were winning everything the first time and then if it didn’t work... we kind of just stopped and then that’s when they would counter us a little bit. So he’s like, ‘if you lock that down, you’re going to lock down the game’, which we did. We were in their half the whole second half.”

The Wildcats generated 16 shots in the final 45 minutes. The Sun Devils had two. There was a two-minute stretch, between the 73rd and 75th minute, in which Arizona almost scored four different times.

Jill Aguilera ripped a shot from an angle that ASU keeper Giulia Cascapera leaped to knock away. Cascapera then dove to save a powerful shot from Knous from the top of the box.

Aguilera got another look from the left side of the box a minute later but Casacapera gloved her shot at eye level. Kelcey Cavarra rifled a laser from the top of the 18 but it rolled just wide of the post.

“I thought we created a lot of chances, won a lot of corners, and it felt like we just kept creating volume until we scored and it was a matter of time before it went in,” Amato said. “But I know the players were feeling like, ‘is it ever going to go in?’”

Brooke Wilson‘s expression exemplified that. In the 65th minute, the UA forward dribbled past several defenders into the box before clanging a shot off the post. She immediately put her hands over her face in disbelief.

“We were just panicking and kind of getting frustrated that we weren’t scoring,” Falasco said. “But we were able to overcome that.”

ASU earned a corner after Talley’s game-winner, but nothing else. The Sun Devils only mustered seven shots on the night. They finish the season as the only Pac-12 team without a conference win.

Arizona improves to 5-5-1 in the Pac-12 and 11-6-1 overall, tying its fourth-highest win total in program history.

“It’s just putting a stamp on our season,” Talley said.

Regular season, that is. Selection Monday awaits.

“We’ll all be waiting to see if our name pops up and we’re able to get another game here in Tucson,” McGarry said. “But besides that we’re ready to move onto the tournament. At that point it’s a one-game season, so you just give it your all for each game.”

Postgame interviews