Bulls overcome offensive inconsistency to advance to conference title match

Freshman defender Vivianne Bessette (above) helped lead the Bulls to their sixth shutout of the season in a win over East Carolina on Thursday. USF ATHLETICS PHOTO

Advancing to the conference tournament title match was no easy task, but the No. 14 USF women’s soccer team found a way to defeat East Carolina in the semifinals 1-0 on Thursday.

“We just mentally weren’t ready to play the way we typically play and East Carolina made it difficult on us,” associate coach Chris Brown said. “Unfortunately we weren’t able to rectify it until the very beginning of the second half.”

Brown filled in Thursday night for coach Denise Schilte-Brown, who was serving a one-game suspension due to receiving two yellow cards in the team’s previous match.

Despite a choppy performance, the Bulls (8-0-2, 6-0-1) secured a spot in the AAC tournament championship game for the third straight season.

The first half was a tense affair as USF managed to control possession but found it difficult to cut through the Pirates’ defense and create scoring chances. Brown attributed the struggle to a lack of off-ball movement.

“We just lacked movement off the ball. Our [offensive] system does not work if we’re not moving, we need to have that movement off the ball.”

Senior defender Chyanne Dennis echoed the same frustration with the turgid opening 45 minutes.

“In the first half we didn’t have the energy. We didn’t have the movement off the ball that we strive to have, that’s where we get our success,” Dennis said. “[In the second half] we did a better job, [but] like I said we could still do better, much better.

“This [performance] was nowhere near what we’re capable of.”

For ECU (3-6-2, 3-3-2 AAC), the first 20 minutes of the game were encouraging as it managed to stifle USF’s most creative players in an effort to upset the top-seeded Bulls. This control is what made the only goal of the game even more disheartening for the Pirates.

Just 12 minutes into the match, senior defender Paula Leblic attempted to play freshman forward Solveig Larsson into the penalty area, but an ECU defender pounced to clear the danger.

A second later, however, the ball was in the back of the net via an own goal after deflecting off a Pirate.

The 1-0 scoreline did not accurately reflect USF’s early game form, which included a concerning number of errant passes and miscommunication.

“I would attribute that to straight accountability,” Dennis said of the sloppy first half play. “We just weren’t on the ball today. Great teams have bad days and that’s OK.

“The chances of us playing [that poorly again] offensively are pretty slim. I’m glad we got it out of the way in this game.”

With the advantage in their hands, the Bulls relied on their conference-best defense to see out the win.

Anchored by Dennis, freshman defender Vivianne Bessette and junior goalkeeper Sydney Martinez, USF secured yet another shutout, its sixth of the season. 

Each member of the trio was named to the All-Conference First Team earlier in the week, and Dennis received a Co-Defensive Player of the Year nod while Martinez was voted Goalkeeper of the Year.

With the win in the rearview mirror, the Bulls face a quick turnaround for the conference tournament final against Cincinnati, who upset Memphis 1-0 in the other semifinal game Thursday afternoon. The short rest could have an adverse effect on the players, but Brown expressed confidence in the team’s ability to cope.

“We have a deep squad. We are very confident in some of the players that didn’t get time [Thursday] or played a little less than they normally do being ready on Saturday,” Brown said. “We’re just prepared for Cincinnati. They are a very tough team, they showed it [by beating Memphis]. They’re one of the top teams in the American conference every year.”

Dennis agreed with Brown, citing the talent the Bearcats have and recognizing the effort they are likely to bring Saturday.

“Cincy is a good team,” she said. “They’re going to come out and give us their best, and we have to be ready to do the same.”

Saturday’s final will be a chance for USF to win consecutive conference tournaments for the first time in school history, as well as winning the regular-season title and conference title all in the same season, which would also be a first for the program. 

The Bulls and Bearcats will battle for the conference tournament title in Corbett Stadium on Saturday with kickoff scheduled for 2 p.m.