GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Sophomore Alison Lu scored in the 85th minute Friday to lift the Ephs in the national title game for the third time in four years via a 1-0 win over previously unbeaten Hardin Simmons at the University of North Carolina Greensboro's Soccer Stadium.
Williams (21-1-1) advances to Saturday's national championship game versus the University of Chicago (22-1-0) at 2:30 p.m.
"To push through today and have one more game tomorrow is a great, incredible feeling," Eph junior Sarah Hollinger said. "I know we're all excited about what's to come."
Hardin Simmons led the nation in goal scoring (5.14 per game) and shots on goal per game (13), but Friday the Ephs held the Cowgirls without a shot in the first half and allowed only two shots on goal in the game. HSU also had 43 goals off set pieces during the season, but only had thee corners in Friday's semifinal.
"Going into the game, we wanted to try to defend as high up as possible so they couldn't even get into our half," first year midfielder Victoria Laino said. "I think we did a really good job collectively at that. Obviously the back line is amazing and always does a good job 1 v. 1 defending, but I think the team did really well starting up with the forwards as far as not letting them get into a rthym."
Williams outshot the Cowgirls 17-4 in the contest, forcing HSU keeper Caitlin Christiansen to come up with nine saves. After creating six shots in the opening 45 minutes while limiting HSU to none, the Ephs saw momentum switch to HSU -- if only for a moment -- when the Cowgirls created their first corner opportunity in the 50th minute.
Morgan McAdams lined up the corner from the right and served a ball into the box. It caromed off a player right to HSU's All-American forward Kristen Parrish, who quickly lined up a shot ticketed for the near post. However, that was where Eph sophomore back Sarah Kelly was stationed and she blocked the shot and quickly booted it out of harms way.
"I usually go to the post, I stay by it and I usually don't leave it until (goalkeeper) Olivia (Barnhill) tells me to," Kelly said. "We cleared the ball but I didn't hear Olivia tell me to leave, so they shot again and all of a sudden the ball was coming right to me. It hit me and I kicked it away from the goal and then someone cleared it out."
The Ephs allowed only three further attempts at the goal; two went high and one was snared by Barnhill. In the mean time, they continued to play deliberate, possessive soccer and created numerous scoring opportunities. First year Georgia Lord has three chances in the span of two minutes and the game clock dipped under 21 minutes to go. Two of her shots, from nearly identical spots on the field, were punched over the crossbar by Christiansen. The third was a liner toward the left far corner that just skipped wide.
"On video they are just the best passing, receiving, intelligent team we've seen in a long, long, long time," Hardin Simmons head coach Marcus Wood said. "Everything we worked on in terms of trying to press them and get after them, their second unit was picking us apart. Their shape is difficult to manage, so we knew we had to play a defending-counterattack game. I thought we played the game we wanted to play."
With just under 10 minutes to go, Natalie Turner-Wyatt, stationed at the far left post, got a head on a serve into the box by Liz Webber that just went wide of the far right post. But 5 minutes later, after some quick-tempo passing that defines Williams soccer created some space on the right flank, Webber served another ball into the box. This time Lu re-directed a shot that a Cowgirl defender blocked with her back heel, but the ball shot back to Lu, who quickly slotted it into the bottom left corner of the goal with 5:31 remaining.
"They're incredibly organized and they put so many numbers behind the ball and do such a good job collectively defensively, that we really needed to switch the point of attack quickly and needed to press high," Ephs' head coach Michelyne Pinard said. "And we needed, honestly, a little luck today. When you put that many people inside the 18, the ball has to bounce exactly the right way some times. Luckily it bounced right on to Alison Lu's foot and she put it away as she has so many times.
"We're just thrilled to be playing one more game together. This team is a joy to coach and I can't wait to see them play against a team like that (Chicago), who has a ton of attacking presence. It's going to be an 18-to-18 type of game and we're ready and excited. I can't wait to see this team play one more time."
Barnhill finished with one save for the Ephs.