The No. 9-ranked USC women’s soccer team is advancing to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament after defeating No. 22 Texas A&M 2-1 Friday and No. 20 Santa Clara 1-0 in the Sweet 16 Sunday.
“I like the intensity and effort that we gave,” head coach Keidane McAlpine said after the win over Santa Clara. “I thought we raised our level today knowing the importance of the game.”
Junior forward Tara McKeown returned against Texas A&M after missing two games with a knee injury to score the game’s first goal in the seventh minute.
Sophomore forward Penelope Hocking scored a second goal for the Trojans in the 33rd minute, and that ended up being all they needed. Redshirt senior midfielder Natalie Jacobs assisted both of USC’s goals.
Texas A&M only found the back of the net once in the second half even though it sent a flurry of shots at the USC defense. The Aggies put up 21 shots compared to USC’s nine, but redshirt junior goalie Kaylie Collins made seven saves — including multiple impressive stops with the game on the line toward the end of the match.
On Sunday, the Trojans handed Santa Clara its first shutout loss of the year in a physical and intense Sweet 16 battle.
The Broncos headed into the game with a strong regular season resume that saw them upset No. 7 UCLA and tie No. 4 BYU in double overtime.
However, USC proved to be too much for them to handle as a stellar defensive outing limited Santa Clara’s scoring opportunities.
“We didn’t get too caught up in the energy and excitement of the game,” McAlpine said. “We stayed focused and played through the physicality.”
Graduate defender Natalie Ward scored the game-winning goal for the Trojans in the 41st minute. After a long corner was sent back toward midfield, Ward perfectly struck a long volley that put the Trojans up for good.
The goal was the first of Ward’s collegiate career, which included three seasons with Notre Dame.
“I’m speechless,” Ward said after the game. “I couldn’t be more proud of this group of girls and how far we’ve made it.”
After the goal, the Trojans took control of the game, dominating the time of possession and keeping the ball in Santa Clara’s half of the field. Still, USC could not find a second goal to put the game away, missing a number of close opportunities in agonizing fashion: The team hit the crossbar on three separate occasions in the second half.
Santa Clara had a huge header opportunity with 12 minutes remaining, but the shot went wide right and the Broncos were unable to get off any more good looks.
McAlpine credited USC’s experience and its tough regular season schedule with the team’s ability to perform under pressure late.
“Our schedule was filled with teams that compete, and so we’re battle-tested,” McAlpine said. “We made some mistakes along the way in a handful of games, and we showed today that we learned from those.”
The win was especially meaningful for Ward, as it extended her college career another game. After missing her senior year at Notre Dame with an injury, Ward decided to transfer to USC as a graduate to gain a fifth year of NCAA eligibility.
She has been a vital part of the defensive rotation this season, as she has started 12 games for the Trojans, but her offense made the difference Sunday.
“I left it all out on the field today,” Ward said. “If we can bring the same intensity and mentality to every single game from here on out, we can go ahead and win this whole thing.”
Although USC was able to pull out another huge playoff win, it came at a cost. Late in the second half, Hocking went down in pain and later required stitches in her knee. Redshirt junior forward Samantha Bruder, who has played 15 games this year, had to be helped off the field after a collision.
The Trojans will hope to have both players ready to go in the Elite Eight against No. 2 North Carolina, which has only lost once all season.
A win against the Tar Heels would send USC to the Final Four for the first time since 2016. The game will start at 3 p.m. Friday in Chapel Hill, N.C.