When Pitt reached halftime of a fairly evenly played NCAA Tournament Quarterfinal Round match vs No. 1 Florida State, the match was clearly up for grabs.
The Panthers were in a familiar place, as twice earlier this season Randy Waldrum’s squad found themselves in a tight tussle with the Seminoles heading into the second half, and both of those times, Florida State would turn up the pressure en route to overpowering Pitt by the final whistle.
Despite Pitt’s best efforts to deny this from happening again in the third meeting between the two sides, the Seminoles found a new way to break down the Panthers with an onslaught of goals in a short period of time to win, going away, 3-0.
This time two penalties in the box doomed the Panthers, and gave the Seminoles what they needed to slam the door shut on the latest challenge from Pitt. A third goal came as the Panthers were reeling, when Onyi Echegini’s second effort goal put the match away for good in the 68th minute.
“Really proud of our team. We knew it was going to be a tough game. Going into halftime 0-0, not unfamiliar territory…” FSU head coach Brian Pensky said after the match.
“Just kept plugging away, defended well. Never really gave them a clean look, we had a couple of clean looks. Obviously, goals change games.”
How It Happened
The first half played out with FSU with more of those ‘cleaner looks’ as Pensky described, but Pitt was matching possession (not quite even, but had enough of the ball to keep from chasing the match), but they were not finding enough chances in the final third, as the Seminoles were defending well.
Pitt were equally resolute in getting numbers behind the ball when defending, still Florida State had the three quality shots on frame, while Pitt’s two shots that made their way on frame came from hard lining crosses from the width, from Landy Mertz and Sarah Schupansky.
Despite getting off to a decent start in the second half, earning a couple corner kicks, a free kick from fairly close range, and a half-decent advance ending with a Samiah Phiri chance from eight yards that missed wide left, Florida State were still not giving the Panthers enough clean looks.
While Pitt had matched shots through the first hour of the match, Florida State kept Pitt’s goalkeeper Ellie Breech busy from the start — forcing the sophomore into making numerous solid saves in the first half, and early in the second half, primarily on chances created by quick transition moments either from breaking Pitt’s high press attempts or taking advantage of misplayed balls out of the back.
Her fourth save came when FSU’s Jody Brown sent a low shot headed inside the right post, as Brown got loose after winning a ball on edge of final third.
59' | @BreechEllie makes her fourth stop on the night – keeping the score tied at 0 ‼️
PITT – 0, FSU – 0
📺 ESPN + pic.twitter.com/6rijBwfryY
— Pitt Women's Soccer (@Pitt_WSOC) November 24, 2023
But only moments after Breech’s latest save, Florida State brought more pressure at the top of the box.
Pitt saw a close call in the 60th minute when Anna Bout blocked a shot with her shoulder.
While Bout used discipline to keep her hands and arms close to her body in that instance, Florida State would keep coming.
Only minutes later, in the 63rd minute, Brown took a left-footed attempt which appeared to initially hit Pitt defender Ashton Gordon in the center of her body, but the ball scooted off her left arm, just enough for the official to call a penalty for a handball in the box.
FSU’s Taylor Huff stepped up to beat Breech and give the Noles a 1-0 lead.
THERE IT IS‼️
— FSU Soccer (@FSUSoccer) November 25, 2023
The Panthers buckled down for a few minutes, at least.
Trailing by a goal, Pitt, which had trailed twice in the come-from-behind win at Arkansas, found its best chance for an equalizer when Landy Mertz moved forward to the edge of the box, then sent another hard lining ball to the near post, but Florida State’s keeper, Cristina Roque was there to secure the ball.
As the ‘Noles countered, they found their way into the box again quickly. The Panthers appeared to get enough numbers behind the ball, but substitute forward Lucia Wells, back tracking to add more pressure, came flying in to pressure Leah Pais, who just received a ball from Nigerian International, Onyi Echegini. As Pais took a touch, but turned away, Wells slightly clipped Pais to draw the Panthers’ second penalty call in the box in a matter of five minutes.
This time, the former Panther, Pais, buried her spot kick chance past Breech for the 2-0 lead.
The two-goal deficit had the Panthers’ reeling, and only seconds later, the ‘Noles delivered the knockout punch.
Echegini added a third goal, following up on a rebound from a hard shot from Jordyann Dudley, less than one minute after the second penalty conversion to put the Panthers out of reach.
JOE BLOWS IT WIIIDDEEE OPEN‼️‼️
— FSU Soccer (@FSUSoccer) November 25, 2023
The Panthers fought hard to the last whistle, creating a few chances and shots on frame, but it would be too little, too late. Pitt finished the evening with 13 shots and five on target, but in the end, it wasn’t enough.
Florida State (20-0-1) moves on to play in its fourth consecutive College Cup, where they’ll face the winner of Clemson-Penn State (to be played Saturday).
Pitt’s Head Coach Randy Waldrum said heading into the match, that what separates Florida State from most of the rest of this year’s NCAA Tournament field was they have three or four players who could create special plays and moments.
Huff, Echegini, Brown and Dudley combined for 12 shots, with half of those coming on frame, and one of those causing a handball in the box.
Once again, it took one play for the floodgates to open, and this time Florida State had Pitt on its heels enough throughout the match, that once the first goal came, the Panthers couldn’t recover.
The first penalty was a tough one, but Gordon, the fifth-year senior leader, who has been the heart-and-soul of the Panthers back line this season, had her hand out enough for a clear-cut penalty call.
The second penalty was avoidable, coming from the Panthers’ heightened sense of urgency to slow down the ‘Noles attack. Wells, usually a contributor off the bench this season as a freshman from North Allegheny, would probably love to have that one back.
On the third goal, the Panthers were a bit disjointed, and Florida State went direct to put the match away, putting the ball at the feet of their two most dangerous players all season long. With the Panthers pushed up to try to quickly get a goal back, an interception, and a long ball played over the top to Dudley, had Gordon and Ashley Lee caught scrambling to slow down Dudley, who took a touch, then blasted a shot that was stopped by Breech.
However, the Panthers needed to account for Echegini, who was there to bury the rebound.
And just like that — three goals in eight minutes.
In the ACC semifinal FSU found two goals in a 15 minute span in the second half to beat Pitt 2-0, and in the first, regular season match, the ‘Noles second half onslaught came with three goals in a 12-minute span.
Another point Waldrum made before the match to Pittsburgh Soccer Now proved to also be prophetic.
In a match between two of the highest scoring teams in the Nation and left in the NCAA tournament, the team that did a better job defending came out on top.
Florida State was very well-organized in the back and left Pitt with shot attempts that mostly came from hard liners on the edges. The Panthers could have tried to be more patient, and keep the ball for longer stretches to create more set pieces, but they couldn’t connect through the middle, as they typically like the option to play through central forward, Phiri, then redistribute the ball. Most of the time, Phiri had to escape pressure and compromise her place in the high line, to come further back to win balls, due to terrific defending by the FSU back line.
Pitt, a team that led the nation in corner kick chances, were at a rare disadvantage (5-7) in this match.
If you look at Pitt’s key attacking players, only Phiri and Deb Abiodun had three shot attempts (each one on target), Mertz put both of her shots on frame, but as previously mentioned, they were essentially attempted crosses, while Sarah Schupansky and Amanda West only generated a pair of shots, neither making it on frame. Central midfielders Ellie Coffield and Keera Melenhorst were too busy defending and closing space in the middle, that neither had chances to repeat some of their scoring magic that came in the previous two matches.
There’s no doubt that this — and all three losses to Florida State will sting for this very special group of Pitt players who took this program to places it’s never gone before.
Pitt (17-5-1) ends the season with three of its five losses on the season coming to the top-ranked Seminoles, but the Panthers cap an impressive 2023 campaign by earning more wins than any other team in program history. Pitt wrapped up this historic season with program records for most wins (17), ACC wins (6), home wins (9), points (194), goals (64), and assists (66). Pitt posted victories over Duke and North Carolina in the regular season, beating both for the first time in program history. Pitt advanced to the ACC Championship semifinals and the NCAA Championship Elite Eight for the first time.
It was also the swan song for a number of players who made remarkable contributions to the rise of the Pitt women’s program.
Amanda West ended her career as the Panthers’ all-time leading scorer, with 50 goals. Mertz, who transferred from Dayton in 2020, capped a tremendous season as one most dynamic play makers in Panthers’ history, with 15 career goals and 26 assists. Ashton Gordon, as mentioned above, like West, came to Pitt from Canada, and had an enduring impact, helping guide the back line through many ACC battles, bringing invaluable leadership that will be sorely missed, along with another fifth-year senior, Anna Bout (8 goals, 18 assists), who also came to Pitt in 2019, as part of the Canadian-connection.
The good news for Pitt, is that just about every one else on this roster should be back, and that’s a great sign for the coming years as Head Coach Randy Waldurm, along with Ben Waldurm and Jesse Goleman, have built a winning culture which will now be in the hands of some very capable players to carry on for a number of years to come.
There will be new obstacles to overcome and goals to set.
Getting to a first-ever College Cup and beating Florida State will be at the top of the list.
— Heather Lyke (@Pitt_LykeAD) November 25, 2023