It got kind of crazy at the end, but every experience you have is good for you. That gave us an opportunity to work on putting a game away. —BYU head coach Jennifer Rockwood
COLUMBIA, S.C. — The Cougars are cruising into the Sweet 16 in South Carolina.
BYU got the insurance goal it needed against Oklahoma when Michele Vasconcelos ricocheted in a shot off the bottom of the crossbar 20 minutes into the second half of a 2-1 second-round victory in the NCAA Women's Soccer Tournament on Thursday afternoon.
The Cougars cashed in that insurance policy in the final eight minutes of the game by holding off the Sooners after Oklahoma's Rachel Ressler took an assist from Lizzie Luallin and punched it in to cut the deficit to one.
"I thought we came out and controlled the game well, like we try to do," BYU coach Jennifer Rockwood said in a postgame statement. "It got kind of crazy at the end, but every experience you have is good for you. That gave us an opportunity to work on putting a game away."
The No. 4-seeded Cougars (18-2-1) did put it away, and put themselves into a Sweet 16 matchup Saturday at 5 p.m. at Stone Stadium against top-seeded South Carolina.
Ashley Hatch headed in a crossing pass from Stephanie Ringwood Ney in the 11th minute against Oklahoma for an early BYU lead and her 19th goal of the season. It was Hatch's first career NCAA tourney goal; Vasconcelos' goal was her second in tournament play.
"These two right here (Hatch and Vasconcelos) are two of the best players that BYU has had, and it’s exciting for us to have them on the field at the same time," Rockwood said. "I know they’re anxious and ready to go for the next game and lead this team on to bigger and better things.”
Those "bigger and better things" start with a Sweet 16 meeting with top-ranked South Carolina (20-1-1), which defeated Colorado 1-0 in a defensive battle Thursday night to advance. The Gamecocks won again after having an 18-game winning streak ended recently.
BYU outshot Oklahoma 10-3 while shutting out the Sooners in the first half Thursday, but the Cougars couldn't convert outside of Hatch's header and were only up 1-0 at the break. Even so, getting on the board first was important, Hatch said.
“We know that if we can get the first goal then our chances of winning the game are very good, so every game we step on the field expecting ourselves to score first," she said. "We just pushed hard; Stephanie (Ringwood Ney) played a beautiful ball, and we put it in. At halftime. I told Michele (Vasconcelos] the next shot she took was going to go in, and it went in. So that early lead is very important."
The Cougars had a gut-check after "a little craziness" happened and Ressler's goal gave Oklahoma the threat of putting in an equalizer in the final minutes, Rockwood said.
"I think it’s always a good lesson, learning how to close out a game," she said. "We’ve had to do it over the season this year, and we’ve done a really good job with it. I think we got a little bit panicky, and we don’t need to do that. It’s just a good reminder to stay composed and confident and finish out games like we know we’re capable of doing."
Vasconcelos said the Cougars appreciate their fans across the country making them feel at home like they did Thursday.
“We’re really blessed to have that," Vasconcelos said. "Everywhere we go around the country we have that, even out at Ohio State and Penn State; it was awesome. Hearing ‘BYU’ super loud gives us a big confidence boost.”
Hatch is also grateful for BYU's energetic fan base.
“We have this thing: every game is a home game, and it’s true," she said. "If you were at our game, you would have thought it was a home game because we have such a great fan base and support system.”
The Cougars will need that attitude Saturday as they face the No. 1 seed Gamecocks on South Carolina's home field at Stone Stadium.
The Sweet 16 match can be heard in Utah on ESPN 960 AM and BYU Radio (Sirius XM 143) on the Cougar IMG Network. It will be streamed on ESPN3.