By Dylan Vazzano, TTU Sports Information
MURRAY, Ky. – Late-match dramatics with the season on the line was the name of the game Sunday afternoon, as the fifth-seeded Tennessee Tech soccer team used a penalty kick goal in the 89th minute to break a 1-1 deadlock on the way to a 2-1 victory over No. 4 Murray State in the OVC Tournament quarterfinals.
Tech's thrilling triumph pushes the purple and gold to a spot in the tourney semifinals for the first time since 2017, while TTU's second win in this year's conference tournament marks the third time in school history in which the Golden Eagles have won two playoff matches in a single season. The 2000 and 2009 Tech teams also won a pair of affairs in the OVC Tournament.
TTU's victory handed the host Racers only their second home loss of 2021, as Tech joined Cincinnati as the only two road teams to claim a win at Cutchin Field this season. The Golden Eagles (6-5-4) also run their unbeaten streak to eight straight, one shy of the program record of nine in a row set back in the 2017 campaign. Tennessee Tech did not lose a match in the month of October, going 5-0-3 over the unblemished stretch.
"Today was just an unbelievable effort by our team in so many ways," TTU head coach Steve Springthorpe said. "Between coming into a tough environment against a great Murray State team that just doesn't lose at home very often, to our group's overall desire to keep this recent streak going, to the belief that we can find a way to win no matter the circumstances and the confidence we are playing with right now is all pretty amazing. I am so happy and proud of this group."
With Tech leading 1-0 late in regulation, Murray State (9-8-1) found a way to provide the equalizer with an Audrey Henry goal in the 86th minute to square the score at 1-1. With the match appearing destined for overtime, the Golden Eagles had other ideas in the waning moments of regulation.
A Macy Carter roller connected with Chloe Smith on the outskirts of the box on the left side. As a pair of Racers converged, Smith's nifty move landed the 5-foot-8 junior inside the box, and with her momentum carrying her toward a potential goal-scoring opportunity, Murray State's defense tripped Smith up which led to a penalty kick with less than two minutes remaining in regulation.
Cool, calm and collected, Meredith Nye stepped up and buried the attempt with a bullet that saw Racer keeper Jenna Villacres get a piece of it, but Nye's try had just enough steam on it to glide it into the back of the net for the winner. Nye's dramatic goal was her third this season and fourth of her Golden Eagle career.
"We had all the confidence in the world with Meredith in that spot," Springthorpe claimed, on the game-winning opportunity. "She's as mentally tough as you will found out of a player, and once she knew she would take it, you could tell that Meredith was more than ready for the chance. She has the kind of personality that is made for moments like this. Meredith is a great competitor and I couldn't be happier for her to come through like that."
Nye's winner, which came on the heels of Murray State's equalizing goal less than three minutes earlier, showcased Tech's ability to bounce back with the club's postseason lives at stake, a situation that didn't go unnoticed by Springthorpe.
"When Murray scored at the point in the game, there was certainly a level of shock to be honest," the Tech head coach said. "Here we are just trying to close out the game with only a few minutes left and then something like that happens. Teams can get down on themselves in that spot, but our players didn't drop their heads and allow that to occur. We have played in a lot of overtime games and have shown our ability to come back in adverse situations many times this year, so we have developed a belief in ourselves that we can find a way to get the job done when we have to. We created positivity under negative circumstances and the credit has to go to everyone. Even the players on the bench were encouraging those that were out there and you could just see our confidence building. I'm proud of our resiliency in that spot."
Smith's offensive prowess, which made Nye's moment possible, was put on full display earlier in the match to help push the Golden Eagles to the tilt's first score. Knotted at 0-0 just over halfway through the opening stanza, Smith found a way to split the pipes in the 24th minute to break the scoreless affair. Yao Giada Zhou helped start the score with a header the banged off the lid of a Racer and in the direction of Bailey Taylor. Taylor then drilled a header that took a bounce in the box, and amid a Murray State crowd of defenders, Smith roped a try over the leaping attempt of Villacres and into the back of the net for her team-leading fourth goal of the season.
"What an awesome goal that was," Springthorpe said. "Bailey made a heck of an individual play to flick it over the top and then Chloe ran on to it, took a bouncing ball and just stuck it home. Chloe has been playing some of the best soccer of her career over the last several matches, and between that goal and the play she made to help set up the penalty kick, you can't say enough about the impact she had on a game of that magnitude."
Smith's score was one of just two shots taken in the first half by the Golden Eagles. In fact, Tech was outshot 10-5 in the match and did not have a shot on-goal outside of its two net-finders in the contest. Smith and Nye led the club with two shots apiece, while Murray State's Rebecca Kubin was the match leader with three total attempts.
Isabelle Austin made six saves for her second career playoff win. Villacres did not secure a stop.
Now in the semifinals for the fourth time in the last seven seasons, the Golden Eagles will head to UT Martin to clash with the top-seeded Skyhawks in Friday's semifinal. First kick from Skyhawk Soccer Field in Martin, Tenn. is scheduled for 4 p.m. CT.
The Golden Eagles captured the regular-season meeting behind a 2-1 double overtime comeback victory on Oct. 7 in Martin. Tech trailed 1-0 late in regulation before providing the equalizer on a Bailey Taylor goal in the 69th minute. The Golden Eagles won the match with less than two minutes to go before it would have ended in a draw thanks to a Gabby Garcia goal in the 109th minute.
"We are excited to be back in the semifinals, it's been a few years since that has happened for us, but it is something you never take for granted," Springthorpe noted. "It's been pretty remarkable what our team has been able to accomplish over the last month just to put ourselves in this position. Their belief and work ethic has been awesome to witness and we look forward to representing Tennessee Tech in a stage like this. We know UT Martin is a great team that is tough at home. They will be excited to get another chance against us after our win over them at their place in the regular season. We will be ready for this challenge and are looking forward to Friday."
Photo courtesy of Dave Winder, Murray State Athletics