PITTSBURGH — No. 4 Pitt played in their most important game in program history Saturday night, taking on Buffalo in the First Round of the NCAA Tournament at Ambrose Urbanic Field.
The match marked Pitt’s first ever appearance in the NCAA Tournament, since the program began in 1996. Pitt struggled at times offensively, but a late goal from senior forward Leah Pais ensured them a spot in the Second Round next week and their first ever NCAA Tournament victory.
The Panthers (13-4-3), with the victory over the Bulls (15-2-4), win their first game since a 2-0 defeat of Syracuse on Oct. 20 and break a three game winless streak.
Panthers head coach Randy Waldrum is not new to success in the NCAA Tournament. His tenure at Notre Dame saw him win two National Championships in the 14 years as head coach.
Waldrum said that if his team put away some of the early chances, they win the match by five. He also praised the Bulls for their intensity and the chances they took that forced his team to be wary of their attack.
“Overall, really, really proud of the performance of the team outside of not being a little more clinical around goal,” Waldrum said. “But I thought we dominated the possession. Dominated the opportunities, the looks at goal that we had. We only had a few mental lapses defensively, but overall I thought we held them in check from a defensive standpoint. They had one or two good looks in the first half and really other than the one late in the second half, we kind of minimized those opportunities. So overall, the performance was great and obviously getting our first postseason win, we’re really excited about it.”
Pitt started off with the better of the chances on the attack. Sophomore forward Samiah Phiri got onto a cross in the fifth minute, but her shot went just wide. Sophomore midfielder Keera Melenhorst blasted a shot two minutes later right into a Buffalo defender. Fellow sophomore midfielder Ellie Coffield found the rebound and then took a curling shot from distance that went out for a goal kick.
The Bulls struggled to get behind the Panthers’ strong defensive line in the first half. The best chance came for them when sophomore forward Jasmine Guerber took a shot from distance that flew over the goal in the 19th minute.
Pitt struggled to stay patient on offense and the line judges called them for offsides six times in the first half. This prevented Pitt from building rhythm offensively and the chances mostly absent in the initial 45 minutes.
The last chance for Pitt in the first half came off some good build up play in the 41st minute. Sophomore midfielder Bri Hilsenteger put a ball into Pais, who passed it on one touch to senior midfielder Anna Bout. Bout crossed it into first-year midfielder Fleming Dean, but she didn’t get a good touch and the ball went out for a goal kick.
The Panthers stayed in the game by playing great defensively. They held the Bulls to just eight shots in the game, and none of the shots really threatened senior goalkeeper Caitlyn Lazzarini at all.
Waldrum said most of the time for Pitt defensively, they focused on stopping their centre forward, Guerber, by having someone step to her and then others providing coverage for them. He noticed that Guerber came off the Pitt centrebacks, moved back to the midfield to receive the ball and run at his defense, so he and the coaching staff reemphasized at halftime to stick to the plan and defend well.
“I thought for the most part we did a good job on them,” Waldrum said. “They didn’t create too much difficulty for us throughout the game I didn’t think, yeah.”
The biggest opportunity to score for Pitt in the second half started with a long pass from Pais in the 76th minute. Senior midfielder Landy Mertz beat two Buffalo defenders to the ball and put a cross into sophomore forward Sarah Schupansky. Schupansky found herself unmarked in the box and with no defender in the box, she shot on goal. Her shot hit the side of the right post and out for a goal kick keeping the match scoreless.
The Panthers made up for their mistakes on that Pais goal in the 85th minute. The play started out with a Bout cross to the box that tried to find Pais. Pais tracked the ball, but Bulls first-year midfielder Sarah Woods clattered into her from behind. Pais laid on the ground with the referee choosing to ignore the push in the back.
Woods failed to clear it and Bout got the ball again. She moved down the left side and put a cross back in the box. Pais, who at the time was lying on her back, realized this and quickly got to her feet and headed down the cross into the net for the winning goal.
Another look at the goal that pushes the Panthers to the @NCAASoccer Second Round!
— Pitt Women's Soccer (@Pitt_WSOC) November 13, 2022
“It gave me a rush of energy,” Pais said about scoring her game winning goal. “Definitely gave me a rush of energy. There were just so many chances and we finally just put one in the back of the net. You stay on the ground for a little bit, you wait and perfect timing from a perfect cross. So I couldn’t have asked for anything more.”
Pais said that the Buffalo defense likes to play a really “tight block.” This allows them to take teams down that play slow by shifting and dropping constantly to stop potential chances. Pais also mentioned that Pitt’s patience allowed them to score the goal, even after so many frustrating offside calls and missed chances.
ain't never seen a 'call an ambulance but not for me' goal before but i am HOWLING pic.twitter.com/zhAEOUIFjd
— ugh (@838_carlisle) November 13, 2022
That goal for Pais is her eighth of the season, a team-high, and her first since Notre Dame on Sept. 25. It’s even more impressive considering that she comes off the bench almost every game, starting just four of Pitt’s 20 matches this season.
Waldrum said that Pais enjoys coming in as a substitute and that she likes to come on after seeing what the opponent is doing the field in the first 15 minutes. He also praised her development over the past few seasons with the team after she transferred in from Albany and that she continues to improve every day.
Pais discussed her wish to play off the bench with Waldrum. She said that her maturity allowed her to discuss this with Waldrum and that he trusted in her to contribute as a substitute.
“It was kind of letting me say, “You know what, someone else can come in the field to start the game,” Pais said about her coming off the bench. “It gets a little bit hectic out there and I like to watch those players and how they play and how the other teams play and just come in the game and make a difference. I think that’s what he really understood what I said and he just went with the flow. “I think it’s been an amazing season for the players that have been starting and those who have been coming off the bench. It’s a we, not me, environment.”
Pitt held Buffalo off and took the victory to send them into the Second Round of the NCAA Tournament. There they face off against No. 5 Georgetown in Tallahassee, Fla. on Friday, Nov. 18 at 2 p.m.
Waldrum is looking for team to improve their finishing in their next match if they want to continue with their season. He said that the players know how to execute offensively, but just need to score off those chances.
“We just got to be more clinical around the goal,” Waldrum said. “Now we just got to pay attention and be clinical because the deeper the run you make, the fewer chances you get.”