ORANGE BEACH, Ala. — A statement was made by Auburn soccer.
For the first time in five years, Auburn advanced to the SEC Tournament semifinals after it defeated South Carolina 2-1 in the tournament’s second round.
It’s the first time Auburn has defeated South Carolina since 2012 and it happened with the brightest lights shining on the Tigers.
"Just really excited. Excited for this team,” said Auburn head coach Karen Hoppa. "Such a young team. We’ve gotten better over the year, a lot throughout the regular season and really excited for them to get a chance to play in the semifinals.”
The eight-game stretch without a win over the Gamecocks is over.
“It’s really an exciting moment. We haven’t beaten [South Carolina] since 2012 and we were ready for revenge because we knew we had them in league play,” said Auburn forward Sydney Richards. “But this was so great and we’re ready to face Arkansas again.”
Auburn found itself on the opposite end of an unrelenting Gamecock attack with goalkeeper Maddie Prohaska coming up with a huge double-save in the first 10 minutes to keep the score level. Prohaska had to lay out full-body, outstretched in the air, to block the second shot attempt and keep her Tigers in the fight.
The sophomore had four crucial saves on 14 Gamecock shots.
“Boy she was outstanding,” Hoppa said of Prohaska. “She looked like a veteran, didn’t she. She was outstanding. One of the best performances in her young career. The only goal they got past her was a penalty kick. So great performance by Maddie Prohaska.”
Right before the half, Anna Haddock went down near midfield with a whistle being blown to signal a Tiger free-kick. Haddock lined up and stuck her arm in the air, striking the ball into the sky and letting it glide down into the Gamecocks' goalie's box. M.E. craven saw her chance and knocked the ball into the goal to put the Tigers up 1-0 in the 41st minute.
After the first goal and the break at the half, Auburn was playing confidently.
“We felt the first half was really back and forth, we certainly felt we had some opportunities but there were certain things we could do better,” Hoppa said. “And we just talked about growing into the game. The game plan was working, we just needed to execute it a little bit better, in particular on the offensive side when we got the ball. Talked about some opportunities we can have in the final third and yeah, the girls played with a lot of confidence and created a ton of chances.”
Constant pressure by the prowling Tigers had the Gamecocks reeling and led to another scoring chance by a few of the Tigers' most score-happy attackers.
Auburn opened the field after a defensive stop with a long cross to Olivia Candelino and Marissa Arias, pushing toward goal on the right side of the pitch. Candelino flicked the ball to Arias, who snapped her head back and headed a ball in between the two nearby defenders.
Candelino made for the pass and sent it back into the box, where Arias nudged the ball away from the sprawling goalkeeper and set up Richards for a toe-tap into goal. The header by Arias was right on the dot, artistry by the sophomore with all the pressure mounting.
It put the Tigers up 2-0.
Haddock and Richards have now accounted for 15 out of the last 18 goals for the Tigers.
While up 2-0 with less than thirty minutes remaining, Auburn wasn’t out of the woods yet. A foul committed inside of Prohaska’s box led to the referee awarding a penalty kick to the Gamecocks. After the Gamecocks knocked in the goal off of the penalty kick, Auburn was defending against South Carolina for its life.
The Gamecocks had at least six goal-scoring chances in the final five minutes of the match. Each one was thwarted by constant high-intensity defense by the Tigers.
“That [penalty kick] I didn’t really think was a PK, so it was good that we had that second one to cushion it,” Richards said of South Carolina’s lone goal.
Auburn’s backline put on a clinic in the second half. The communication between Prohaska and her defensive players was pivotal in those final stops with the goalie shouting “up” and “again” over and over as the ball continued the threaten the Tigers’ goal.
“It’s always fun when we’re super receptive of each other and I think the biggest thing is when you communicate, make sure the people around you listen,” Prohaska said of her defense’s success. “And I think that’s the biggest thing we’ve grown recently, is making sure everyone is listening to each other and growing from there.”
Now advancing to the semifinals for the first time in five years with a matchup against No. 1 seed Arkansas, Auburn is excited for another shot at revenge for another one of its regular-season defeats.
“Just an opportunity to have a second chance at them,” Hoppa said. “We lost to them at home, and they’re one of the best teams in the country. We’ll come in as a clear underdog and it’s gonna be a great opportunity for a second chance for our team.”
“They’re a really run at you and kick it team so we’re just trying to make sure we keep our composure and keep calm, and I think if we play the way we did today and kinda off-balance them and take them by surprise, I think we can get ‘em,” Richards said of the looming battle with the Razorbacks.
Auburn will have just one day to bask in the glory of its historical quarterfinal win before shifting focus to a top team in the country.
“It’s just a matter of next half, next minute, next play,” Prohaska said. “That’s just our mentality right now.”
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Larry is a senior studying journalism with a minor in sociology. He is from Enterprise, Alabama and is in his third year with The Auburn Plainsman.