A late goal propels Lady Vols into the semis
ORANGE BEACH, Ala. — The hairs on the back of Chelsea Hatcher's neck still perk up when she waxes poetic about her freshman season.
It was a magical ride Hatcher and her Tennessee women's soccer team enjoyed en route to the program's fourth SEC tournament championship in 2008.
Those same feelings began washing over Hatcher on Wednesday when the senior forward's late goal lifted the third-seeded Lady Vols past sixth-seeded Kentucky 2-1 at the Orange Beach Sportsplex.
Coincidentally, it marked the team's first tournament win since that 2008 run.
"The seniors, we want to go out the way we came in," said Hatcher, whose fifth goal of the season broke a 1-all tie in the 76th minute. "Obviously, it's one game at a time, but we want to stay in Orange Beach until the end. This win was hugely important in taking that step."
Tennessee (15-5) puts another foot forward against Auburn (12-6-2) in the semifinals at 6 p.m. Friday.
The No. 7 Tigers shocked No. 2 LSU 3-0 earlier Wednesday.
The Lady Vols easily handled Auburn 2-0 on Oct. 23, but UT coach Angela Kelly is expecting a hungrier group of Tigers this time.
"It's hard to beat a team twice in a year, much less 10 days," the 12-year coaching veteran said. "But in a Cup-like, sudden-death environment, you throw out all the statistics. There's a ton of parity at this tournament."
That was clear for the first 75 minutes against Kentucky.
The Lady Wildcats (13-7) scored the game's opening goal in the 10th minute before Lady Vols leading scorer Emily Dowd provided the equalizer with her 12th goal of the season less than two minutes later.
Both teams missed golden opportunities in the second half before Hatcher executed perfectly off a free kick with less than 25 minutes left.
"(Kelly) tells me to focus on hitting the face," Hatcher said. "That way if it doesn't go in, somebody can be there to rebound and follow it up."
No need this time. The shot screamed past a diving Kayla Price and into the back of the net.
From there, Tennessee relied on its smothering defense to stifle a Kentucky offense that led the conference in shots during the regular season.
Lady Vols freshman goalkeeper Julie Eckel made four saves) and got great support from sweepers Tori Bailey and Ali Hall.
"I feel so comfortable playing behind this back line," Eckel said. "Other teams don't get many opportunities because our defense is so solid. They're always in the right position."
Eckel dodged several close calls, including a frantic sequence late in the first half.
A header from Kentucky's Molly Huber ricocheted off the face off the cross bar and Eckel went rushing out to smother the carom. Huber, though, beat her to the ball and got a left foot on it.
"I was caught off my line," Eckel admitted. "Luckily, it hit the post."
The shot grazed the outside of the left post and the threat was squelched.
"To Kentucky's credit, they disrupted our rhythm in the first half," Kelly said. "We regrouped and made sure we were the ones dictating and playing more of our style."