Georgia finds a way: Lady Flames soccer falls in final minutes of NCAA Tournament opening round, 2-1

After claiming the Conference USA title in thrilling fashion, the Liberty women’s soccer team stared down the tough task of facing the No. 4 Georgia Bulldogs in the first round of the NCAA Tournament at the Turner Soccer Complex in Athens, Georgia.

In a tight match, Liberty was defeated by Georgia 2-1, bringing its 2023 season to a close. 

The SEC Champion Bulldogs opened scoring in the first half with a goal by graduate forward Hannah White who was assisted by graduate midfielder Bethune Croix. The opening score turned up the intensity of the game early on, preparing the crowd for an exhilarating battle.

Neither team managed to score in the first half after the opening goal, leaving Georgia with the 1-0 advantage heading into the locker room. 

As the second half commenced, the energy was evident from the Lady Flames, earning multiple quality opportunities in front of the Bulldogs’ net. Liberty eventually broke through with the equalizer with under 20 minutes remaining in the second half.  Sophomore midfielder Ivy Garner found a lane by the corner of the net, sending the ball opposite the Bulldogs goalkeeper for the score. 

The goal was her sixth of the season, and Garner has been named to both the All-Conference second team and the ASUN All-Freshman team. 

In the final minutes of the game, both teams desperately sought the opportunity to lift their groups on top. 

With just over five minutes remaining on the clock, Bulldogs Kiera Staude managed to break through the defense, finding the back of the net for the first goal of her career. Despite Liberty’s final efforts to even the score, the Bulldogs defeated the Flames by a final of 2-1. 

Georgia outshot Liberty in total shots by a margin of 29-4, and in shots on goal, 11-4. It was the first match all season that the Lady Flames didn’t edge the opponent in shots. The Bulldogs will be taking on the winner of the Iowa-Bucknell match Nov. 17. 

Ainsley Leja, the team’s junior goalkeeper, was named Conference USA Goalkeeper of the Year and made a season-high nine saves in the match. She finished the year with a .829 save percentage and 10 shutouts — a tie for the program record she set in the 2022 season.

The loss marks the end of a strong season for the Lady Flames, where they finished the year 16-3-1 and as Conference USA Champions. Eight of the team’s players were also selected to the CUSA All-Conference team, five of which are first-team honorees. 

Richards is a sports reporter for the Liberty Champion

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