LINCOLN, Neb. – Stuff happens.
That’s, essentially, what Gonzaga goalkeeper Lauren Towne told her teammates after UC Irvine scored its second goal on Friday. It was just the 17th minute and the Bulldogs, into uncharted territory of the NCAA Tournament’s second round, had plenty of time to carve more notches in the history books.
“There wasn’t any doubt stemming from that,” Towne said after Friday afternoon’s match. “We had plenty of time left and this team can do special things.”
Gonzaga steadied itself and started its rally. The Bulldogs scored before halftime and entered the break with confidence. They fired away with 11 shots in the second half, but none of them cleared the line.
A week after upending Idaho for the program’s first NCAA Tournament win, Gonzaga’s historic 2023 season closed with a disappointing 2-1 loss to UC Irvine.
Battling a crosswind, the Anteaters immediately peppered Gonzaga’s back line with long passes. Junior Kiera Smeenge lobbed a ball from her center back spot to forward Aveka Singh, who scored the opening goal in the fifth minute.
The Anteaters doubled their lead a dozen minutes later when Tati Fung tiptoed the end line and sent a low cross to an open Lilli Rask at the far post.
“Important moments like this you can’t start on your back foot, you can’t start with hesitation,” GU head coach Chris Watkins said, “and we had that.”
The Bulldogs huddled near the penalty spot and Towne settled them.
Down two goals within the first 20 minutes, Gonzaga clamped down. The Bulldogs reassured themselves and stretched the field. They pressed forward, slowly opening the floodgates. Kelsey Oyler found space at the side of the box for a cross. UC Irvine’s Glo Hinojosa dove on it. Emelia Warta fired a rocket at goal from 20 yards out that went directly to the goalkeeper.
That pressure finally yielded a goal in the 40th minute. Another shot from Warta deflected off an Anteaters defender and fell to the feet of Katelyn Rigg. The freshman from Olympia calmly slotted it to the far post. The Bulldogs carried momentum into the second half with a chance to rewrite the history books again.
“It fell my way and … fortuitous things,” Rigg said.
Gonzaga created a handful of quality chances in the second half. Marissa Garcia created space and rifled a shot into the goalkeeper’s outstretched arms. Oyler jockeyed the ball 25 yards outside the box before she fired at goal. Hinojosa leaped but couldn’t get to it. The ball ricocheted off the bottom of the cross bar, down to the turf and spun back into play. Officials consulted VAR at the next stoppage to see if the ball crossed the line. A brief video review concluded the entire ball never went over and denied the Bulldogs their first time equalizing from a 2-0 deficit since last season.
Nothing else came as close as that and the Bulldogs fell to their knees at the final whistle. Watkins, the staff and players huddled after the weight of the loss. The head coach beamed with pride about their unexpected, fruitful journey. They fought their way to the program’s first postseason win and first West Coast Conference title, creating memories that will likely become program lore.
“People make the game fun and we have a team that is so tight-knit and connected,” Towne said. “On the field, it shows how far we’ve made it, but off the field, the character in that locker room is amazing and I’m going to miss this a lot.”