Not even a five-hour rain delay could dampen the Florida women’s lacrosse team’s spirits Saturday, as the fourth-seeded Gators (16-3, 5-0 ALC) downed the Stanford Cardinal (16-3, 6-0 MPSF) 13-11 in front of a jubilant home crowd.
Florida’s young team jumped all over Stanford right at the start in their first-ever NCAA Tournament game, scoring goals 24 and 33 seconds into the game.
“Possession is huge, and we were able to possess the ball and put four goals up on the board,” head coach Amanda O’Leary said. “For us, I think that was key to get off to a good start.”
Sophomore midfielder Brittany Dashiell opened the scoring for the Gators after Florida won the draw control to start the game.
Sophomore Kitty Cullen, a candidate for the nation’s best player award, then notched three-straight goals to give Florida an early 4-0 lead over Stanford a little more than five minutes into the game.
But the Gators struggled to find a rhythm after their hot start, and Stanford controlled possession through much of the first half by playing good transition defense. Stanford held Florida scoreless for a 24:13 stretch in the first half.
The Cardinal got goals from four different players through the middle part of the first half to tie the game at 4-4 with just under six minutes to go in the first half.
With all the momentum swinging the other way, the Gators got a key goal just before the half from sophomore midfielder Janine Hillier.
Dashiell got the ball at the top of the outer arc and passed up an open look to dish it perfectly to Hillier on her right. Hiller raced forward and fired a shot into the top left corner of the net to put the Gators up 5-4 and bring the crowd back into the game with 13.2 seconds remaining in the first half.
“Having such great chemistry on offense, it’s just rubbing off on each player,” Hillier said. “I just feel like if we’re playing well as a whole, that’s what’s making each individual play well.”
Hillier wasted no time picking up right where she left off in the second half.
Just 20 seconds into the second half, Hillier raced around the left of the outer arc and got a clean look on goal as she cut across the middle, firing a shot right past the goalkeeper into the back of the net to extend Florida’s lead to 6-4.
Dashiell added a goal 22 seconds later to put Florida ahead 7-4.
After quickly going down three goals, Stanford regained control and scored four straight goals behind an offensive barrage from senior midfield Lauren Schmidt.
Schmidt scored three goals, one from the free position and two unassisted, to tie the game at 7-7 with 25:10 remaining in the game.
Senior Leslie Foard added a goal a minute and a half later to give Stanford an 8-7 lead before both teams began to battle back and forth for the next 10 minutes.
Dashiell scored her second goal of the game to even things at 8-8 before Stanford’s Anna Kim put the Cardinal back in front two and a half minutes later.
Down 9-8, the Gators tied things up again Dashiell passed forward to sophomore midfielder Colby Rhea around the right side of the circle. Rhea bounced a shot in low to even the game.
Florida regained the lead with 14:27 remaining when sophomore attacker Caroline Chesterman scored from the free position.
Stanford senior Sarah Flynn tied the game at 10 with 13:50 remaining before Hillier took over and put the nail in the coffin to seal Florida’s historic win.
Hiller scored from the free position on the far left hash when she rifled a shot past the goalkeeper with 13:04 remaining. She scored again just more than a minute later when she beat her defender to the left and then fired a shot just inside the far right post, putting the Gators up 12-10.
She finished the game with a career-high four goals on eight shots, bringing her three-game goal total to nine. She’s scored on 12 of her last 19 shots.
“It’s been so much fun just playing alongside her,” Cullen said of Hillier. “She’s a great, talented player. She’s athletic, she’s fast, and she’s able to get by her defenders. Now, having her finish is just helping us so much, especially going into the rest of the NCAA games. I’m proud of her.”
Stanford drew one goal back thirty seconds later when Foard scored her second goal of the game from the free position.
Cullen added her fourth goal of the game with 10:15 remaining when she flew through the right side of the defense and flung a shot into the bottom left corner of the goal.
Florida controlled possession by passing around the offensive half of the field for the last four and a half minutes of the game, as the crowd roared in anticipation of the program’s first-ever NCAA Tournament win.
“I’m just really excited,” O’Leary said after the game, with the emotion from the win still written all over her face. “As such a new program, to make it to the Elite 8, (I’m) just really proud of our team, our coaching staff, our support staff.”
O’Leary credited Stanford’s defense in transition and applauded the job they did defending Cullen by marking her the entire game.
Stanford racked up 14 ground balls and forced the Gators into 13 turnovers, while winning the draw controls battle 14-12.
“Great job by Stanford,” O’Leary said. “They came out and did a great job against us defensively. Offensively, they put a lot of goals in the back of the net. All the credit in the world to Stanford, they did a fantastic job.”
With the win, Florida advances to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. The Gators will host the winner of tomorrow’s Duke and Penn game (2 p.m.) next Saturday at 3 p.m.