COLUMBIA — The Missouri women's soccer team discovered quickly Friday night with its 2-0 victory over Evansville how to shut down Purple Ace senior and Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year Kayla Lambert.
Just don't let her touch the ball.
The Tigers dominated possession throughout the first half, out-shooting Evansville 16-1 through the game's first 45 minutes. The ball spent a majority of the half in the Purple Aces half of the field.
Evansville didn't get their first shot until the 13 minutes, 10 seconds mark of the first half when Lambert lifted a shot high above the crossbar to spoil an important and rare opportunity for the MVC champions.
"That's who we are," Missouri coach Brian Blitz said of his team's ability to use their offense as a means to take pressure off its defense. "We want our forwards to have the ball and not their forwards. Not only her (Lambert) but (senior Mia) Tofano, she's a quality attacker and also No. 7, Nicole (Moyen).
"Not only that's the style that we play, and we want to do that as much as possible, but to also keep it away from their attacking players."
The conditions for the game were a major change for the Tigers, who captured a Big 12 title last week in sunny San Antonio. A strong rain, cold temperatures and lots of wind played a role throughout.
The Tigers did their best, however, to not let the weather become an excuse.
"I think everyone realized that they're in the same situation that we are," junior forward Michelle Collins said. "It's cold and rainy for them. We didn't want to complain. We didn't want to be the ones affected by it."
They weren't. While Evansville faltered in taking advantage of its only scoring opportunity of the half, the Tigers used the 20 mph wind at their back and wasted little time in capitalizing on one of theirs.
In the fourth minute, Collins streaked through the middle of the Evansville defense, taking a pass from Crystal Wagner, and put the ball in the top left corner of the Evansville goal to put Missouri up 1-0 with 41:47 left in the first half.
"We always want to set the tempo," Collins said. "Getting the first goal, getting the early goal always sets the tempo. It pushes momentum for our team, and I think that was crucial. That's what we want to do every single time we come out."
The Missouri attack didn't slow down after the Tigers got on the board.
With 38:58 remaining in the first half Kristin Adrighetto tested Evansville goalkeeper Theresa Bagby as she headed the ball back toward the goal, and less than two minutes later Adrighetto banged a shot off the crossbar.
As relentless as the Tiger offense was, the team's ability to transition back to the defensive end and slow down each and every push by the Purple Aces was on display throughout the first half.
Each time Evansville moved into the Tigers half of the field, the Missouri defense managed to thwart any danger that the Purple Aces presented, and whenever Lambert got around the ball a Tiger defender was there to poke it away.
The physicality of the Tigers was evident as they won a majority of the first half's loose balls, and their aggressiveness was often high enough to push the limits of the rules as the team recorded nine fouls in the game. In the 27th minute, a strong defensive play and steal by Meghan Pfeiffer was followed by a rough foul by Collins as she attempted to take the ball back from the Purple Aces.
"We recruit that," Blitz said. "It's not something that you can really teach. You're either aggressive or you're not. I think that our forwards know that we don't care if you score 100 goals. If you don't defend, you won't play."
Missouri used the majority of its roster to continuously apply their physical, pressure-based offensive system and still manage to get back on defense throughout the game. While Evansville used just three subs during the game, 21 different Tigers saw the field. Keeping the team fresh for the entirety of the mach.
"You don't notice a huge drop off when they sub," Evansville coach Krista McKendree said.
Freshman Candace Ruff added the second goal for the Tigers when she headed the ball into the lower right corner of the goal off a corner kick from senior Ashley Hamblin with 11:47 remaining in the first half.
With the wind in the second half, the Purple Aces were much quicker in asserting themselves on offense, getting their first shot off less than three minutes into the half, but they still could not put together a good enough rush to get on the board. And while the possession was far more balanced in the second half, the Tigers still out-shot Evansville 12-3.
With the win the Tigers move into the second round of the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year, and face off against the University of Illinois on Sunday at 1 pm after the Illini's 1-0 double overtime win over Memphis earlier in the day Friday.
Missouri lost to the Illini earlier in the season. But with how far both teams have come between games, and the implications in having a chance to advance to the tournament's Sweet 16 for the first time in program history, Blitz said his players need no extra motivation.
"I think at this point, having gone to the second round of the postseason we don't even care who we play. We'll play anybody, anytime. I think that the most motivating thing is that's the next game to get us to the Sweet 16."