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Ava McCray’s goal lifts Arizona soccer past No. 16 ASU for fifth straight time

Photo by Simon Asher/Arizona Athletics

No matter the year, no matter what kind of season the teams are having, Arizona soccer continues to own the Territorial Cup series.

Ava McCray headed in a corner kick from Jada Talley in the 33rd minute and the Wildcats held on for a 1-0 win over the 16th-ranked Sun Devils on Friday in Tucson. It marks UA’s fifth straight victory over ASU, a winning streak that dates back to 2016.

All five games were decided by one goal.

“It’s what we thought it was going to be. It’s always what we think it’s gonna be,” said Talley, who’s 4-0 against ASU. “It’s whoever puts the most in on a given day. And tonight, it was us. I think we worked hard. We trained hard all week for this. So I think we deserve it. It was a good team win.”

And maybe the biggest one yet. ASU (6-1-2, 2-0-2) entered the night unbeaten and boasting their highest ranking since 2004. The Wildcats (6-3, 1-3) desperately needed a win after dropping three of their first four Pac-12 games, including a heartbreaker at Oregon on Sunday.

They can always count on getting one against the Sun Devils, even when they’re the underdogs.

“I love [being the underdog] because you’re not supposed to win, so there’s really nothing to lose,” Talley said. “You can play how you want to play and give it all you have and have them on their heels. It gives you a different type of oomph behind you.”

Whatever it was, Arizona turned in its best defensive effort of the season. ASU had been one of the highest scoring teams in the Pac-12 but had difficulty creating chances, mustering only eight shots and a pair of corner kicks. And while the Sun Devils did manage five shots on frame, Hope Hisey saved them easily to record her fourth clean sheet.

Perhaps most impressive of all is that ASU forward Nicole Douglas, the Pac-12’s leading scorer, only had one shot. The Wildcats were not going to let her beat them.

“We knew we had to be tight to her and that she’s really good at getting the ball to her feet,” UA head coach Tony Amato said. “I thought she was central a lot, Sabs (Enciso) and Ava McCray did a really good job and made sure that they denied her any space to be able to play make from that position and then get into dangerous places in the box. Credit to the whole backline.”

McCray actually led the Wildcats with five shots too, almost all of them coming on Arizona’s season-high 11 corner kicks. The tall center back has been dangerous on set pieces this season. She also knocked in the game-winner in the season opener at GCU.

Her latest header was a floater from outside the six-yard box that snuck inside the far post.

“Jada normally doesn’t take corners and during practice we were telling her not to kick it some of the times,” McCray laughed, “but for this one, she just placed it perfectly. And it wasn’t like a solid, hard-hitting header, but I got my noggin on it and it went in.”

Talley and McCray almost connected again a couple minutes later, but McCray’s header landed on top of the net that time.

UA forward Hannah Clifford had a close call in the 61st minute, rattling a rocket off the crossbar. That was not long after ASU earned two corners in a four-minute span and started to find some seams in the UA defense.

Arizona tightened up and dominated the ball for the final 15 minutes, holding ASU without a shot while creating some more promising scoring chances of their own. Talley and Jill Aguilera nearly scored 81st minute with a pair of angled shots. Arizona also earned two corners in the 85th minute, though neither could be put home.

Arizona’s 17-8 shot differential was its largest against a Pac-12 team this season.

“I think the coaches did very well to prepare us this week,” Talley said. “This is one of the weeks where, I’ll speak for myself, but I think everyone felt really prepared. We had a game plan. The biggest game plan was step with the forwards and if they don’t do that, if our center backs don’t do that, if our outside backs don’t do that, we don’t win that game. So kudos to them. And then our offense held it down.”

The only downside to the win is that it does not count toward the conference standings. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, Pac-12 teams are playing their rivals twice this season, with only one being a league game. That will be the rematch in Tempe on April 16.

Either way, Friday felt like a game the Wildcats needed to have. Their next three are against USC, Cal and Stanford.

“It definitely helps with the vibe and energy when you win games,” Amato said. “In this league, you could lose momentum really quickly and turn one loss on Sunday into two, three, four or five losses in a row. And our team knows that, our older players really know that, and they were dialed in all week to make sure that we were focused and in a good place for the game tonight.”

Postgame interviews