Skip to main content
Danielle Pavinelli's two goals helped Florida punch their NCAA semifinal ticket on Thursday in College Park.

Florida Blitzes Maryland Early, Breaks NCAA Semifinal Drought

May 16, 2024
Kenny DeJohn
John Strohsacker

COLLEGE PARK, Md. — The Florida celebration began subtly with 1:29 remaining in the fourth quarter of Thursday’s NCAA quarterfinal — ironically after a Maryland goal.

Head coach Amanda O’Leary’s bright white smile beamed as she hugged two of her assistants, Nicole Levy and Christina Esposito. Even as Kori Edmondson made it a six-goal game, the Gators knew it was all but over.

For the first time since 2012, Florida is back in the NCAA semifinals after a 15-9 win over fourth-seeded Maryland. The celebration seemed like a long time coming — both in terms of years and in terms of the lifespan of a singular game.

For some in attendance, the contest felt like it was over after just 15 minutes. Florida blitzed the Terps, scoring the first nine goals. It happened so fast because it seemed like every Florida shot found twine. The Gators assisted five of those nine goals, as a Maryland defense that entered play sixth in the nation allowing 8.32 goals per game, couldn’t keep up.

It started 32 seconds in with a lethal face dodge from Danielle Pavinelli. Forty seconds later, Maggi Hall assisted Madison Waters. Two minutes after that, Hall did it herself with a lefty rip in the middle of the arc after dodging from goal line extended. That early 3-0 blitz prompted a Maryland timeout, but it couldn’t stop the bleeding.

Six more goals would drop before Hannah Leubecker stung the top-left corner on a free-position attempt with 1:08 left in the opening period, getting Maryland on the board at 9-1.

“We’ve had a lot of situations this year — haven’t had that one,” Maryland head coach Cathy Reese said about being down 9-0. “That’s unfortunately a new one for us, and tough to learn.”

Maryland (14-6) recovered, punching its way back into the game and outscoring the Gators 9-6 starting with Leubecker’s free position. But the hole was far too deep to dig out from, especially against a Florida team known for its offense and perhaps overlooked on defense.

Florida (20-2) entered fourth in the nation in goals allowed per game (8.19), but a quick glance at the Gators’ schedule would show a dearth of high-quality opponents late in the season. Perhaps that’s why Florida, which has won 20 straight games, were denied a seeding opportunity in the NCAA tournament.

But another look at the box score would show one-sided results and dominant showings on both ends of the field. O’Leary credited defensive coordinator Regy Thorpe.

“He watches more film than anybody I know,” O’Leary said. “He dissects their offense down to every single detail. He just creates such an amazing game plan, and it’s really just up to them to execute it.”

Anchoring that defense all season has been Elyse Finnelle, who has played all 60 minutes in cage the past nine games after doing it once in the first 12 games. Finnelle made nine saves, including seven in the first half.

Florida held Maryland to nine goals on 36 shots, a far less efficient performance than the Gators’ 15 goals on 24 shots. Hall led the way with six goals and one assist. Emily Heller, Pavinelli and Waters each scored twice.

“We knew we had to get out to a quick start,” Pavinelli said. “We really just worked the offense to see what the defense was opening up for us.”

There’s an edge to Florida’s game, one perhaps sharpened after earlier-than-expected NCAA tournament disappointments in each of the past two seasons. It’s an edge you might not expect if your first exposure to Florida was that tender moment on the sideline with less than 90 seconds left.

It’s also an edge that makes Florida a not-so-fun semifinal opponent. The Gators play the winner of top-seeded Northwestern and eighth-seeded Penn on Friday at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, N.C.

“This team is just built different,” O’Leary said. “They just came out with a goal from the beginning of the season, and they wanted to accomplish that goal. There was nothing that was going to stand in their way — and the final four was their goal. They did it.”

There’s no satisfaction in O’Leary’s tone when delivering that statement, though. It’s taken 10 full seasons (not counting the COVID-shortened 2020 campaign) for O’Leary to make it back to championship weekend. And while it’s great to be back, she’s never made it to the championship game.

That, for sure, is the new goal. Still, it was hard for O’Leary not to revel in the moment after getting the weight of such a long drought off her shoulders.

“It’s just special whenever you make it,” she said. “There’s so much that goes into making it to a final four and only those that make it can truly, truly appreciate the work, the effort and the sacrifice that truly goes in. … I’m just so proud to be a part of the ride.”