The NCAA tournament championship game will be played tomorrow at 5:30pm (ESPN2). The top seeded Florida State Seminoles (ACC) will meet the eleventh seeded Santa Clara Broncos (WCC) for all of the marbles.
Let’s take a deeper look at this huge game.
These are real questions posed by real people in the sense that they are actual questions (they end in a question mark) and I am a real person (I have written all of the questions).
Who are some players to watch for Santa Clara?
The Broncos are strongest up top. SCU is seventh in the nation in scoring with 2.6 goals a game (FSU is 5th at 2.7). They feature a strong front line with seniors Kelsey Turnbow and Julie Doyle and freshman Sally Menti. The other player that will feature prominently in the attack is sophomore attacking midfielder Izzy D’Aquila. Turnbow is 13th nationally in goals per game while D’Aquila is 24th. For context, FSU doesn’t have a single player ranked in the top 150 in goals per game nationally.
Redshirt freshman Marlee Nicolos will start in goal for the Broncos. Nicolos has allowed eight goals in 11 games for a .78 goals against average.
What issues will that strong attack present for Florida State’s defense?
FSU’s defense has been quite good this year. FSU has a .453 goals against average which is eleventh nationally (SCU is 49th(t) at .717). Although it must be pointed out that most of the year the Seminoles had All-American and MAC Hermann Trophy Finalist Malia Berkely pairing at center back with star Emily Madril. Freshman Lauren Flynn has stepped in for Berkely who departed to play professionally in France. Flynn has mostly looked good so far but she did have crucial giveaway on Thursday against Virginia. Mistakes like that must be avoided on Monday.
The Noles kept a clean sheet against Virginia in the semi-final on Thursday. However, there were issues for the backline in the UVA game. Specifically, Virginia forward Rebecca Jarrett terrorized the Seminole defenders repeatedly with her speed down the left flank (at least in the first half). FSU head coach Mark Krikorian made an adjustment at halftime to give right back Kirsten Pavlisko some help. The Noles shifted center back Emily Madril over to double team Jarrett. That tactic worked like a charm serving to solidify FSU’s defense in the second half.
Santa Clara is just as good if not better up top than the Cavaliers. However, the Broncos are successful in a different manner than UVA. Where Virginia burned FSU with pace the Broncos don’t have a player with Jarrett’s raw speed. While certainly not slow, SCU beats teams with quickness and skill. Specifically, they are much better finishers than what we saw from the Hoos. They may not create quite as many chances as UVA did but they will bury the chances that they get at a much higher rate. They also don’t need much space to fire dangerous shots on goal. FSU’s defenders will need to be particularly tight with their marking in this game because the Broncos are capable of exploiting even the smallest spaces to threaten the goal keeper.
On the other side, what issues does FSU present for Santa Clara?
There are many. If the Seminoles are playing at their best the possession attack that they employ is extremely difficult to handle. It forces teams to defend for much longer than they are used to and it minimizes the opportunities of opposing teams because they don’t have the ball as much and therefore can’t create as many chances.
The Seminoles also are one of the deepest teams in the nation. Yujie Zhao was a third team All-American without starting a single game this year. Because of this depth and their possession style, the Noles can wear down teams over a 90 minute game.
You said “If the Seminoles are playing at their best”. What concerns do you have that they won’t have their A game?
FSU has been in a bit of a scoring slump. Florida State hasn’t scored since the 69th minute of the Sweet 16 game against Penn State - and that was a penalty kick. FSU hasn’t scored in the run of play since the 62nd minute of the Penn State game. That is 248 minutes without a goal in the run of play. The Seminoles need to find a way to break out of this slump because they can’t count on blanking the potent Bronco offense.
FSU also needs to be ready to play from the opening whistle. In recent games against Duke and Virginia the Seminoles seemed to ease their way into the game. That won’t cut it against Santa Clara because the opportunistic Broncos have the firepower up top to get ahead quickly if the Noles are a bit sluggish early.
Are there any other keys to the game?
There are a couple. Florida State will be able to generate opportunities in this game but they need to finish them better. That has been a problem for FSU recently and is the biggest reason for the recent goal drought. Specifically, the Noles need to do better with set-pieces. Particularly, the corner kicks have not been threatening enough. Florida State will have a physical edge in this game as the tallest Bronco is only 5’8 (GK Nicolos and forwards Turnbow and Doyle) while the tallest defender is only 5’7. FSU has 5’10 Kristen McFarland and 5’10 Gianna Mitchell at the forward position and they can bring the athletic 5’8 Jaelin Howell up for set-piece chances. FSU needs to leverage this size advantage on Monday when they get set-piece opportunities.
On the other end, the Seminoles need to play mistake free defense. Santa Clara has a dangerous offense but they will be significantly less threatening if they can’t take advantage of Seminole errors in the back. SCU scored three goals in the semi-final win over North Carolina. The Broncos scored at least two of those goals as a direct result of mistakes in the back by Carolina defenders. If the Noles make similar mistakes they will likely pay with goals the same way the the Heels did on Thursday. Without those mistakes it will be much harder for SCU to get good opportunities against the stout Seminole back line.
If Santa Clara wins it will be because
FSU continues the goal scoring slump and SCU capitalizes on at least one big defensive mistake by the Seminoles.
If Florida State wins it will be because
The Seminoles find a way to crank up the possession in the midfield and they limit SCU’s offensive opportunities.
I’ll take FSU 2-1. Santa Clara is certainly good enough to pull off the upset but Florida State has too much talent to be denied at this point. There will be chances for the Broncos but the defense with a couple of stellar saves from Cristina Roque will be just good enough to deliver the third championship in seven years to Tallahassee.