SOCCER: Gators late rally falls short

All season long, the Florida Gators have had problems getting going in the first half of their matches, but in most instances, Coach Becky Burleigh's team has been able to turn on the switch in the second half to pull out a win. That dangerous trend finally got the best of the Gators Friday afternoon when they dropped their opening round match of the NCAA Tournament to Central Florida, 3-2, at James G. Pressley Stadium on the UF campus.

The first round exit was disappointing for a Gators team that had just won the Southeastern Conference title over rival Tennessee. Florida stuck with its tend of a slow first half, followed by the typical second half assault, only this time, Florida couldn't come back from a 3-0 deficit. The Gators rallied for two goals in four minutes but it just wasn't enough.

"[UCF] played really hard and I am really proud of my team for mounting the comeback," said Coach Burleigh, obviously disappointed with the loss. "Down 3-0, probably the easiest thing they could have done was quit, but our seniors showed a lot of leadership and poise in bringing us back."

While the Gators are no stranger to come from behind victories after coming back from a 3-0 deficit earlier this year, this time they dug too deep a hole against a team that played sound defense and kept the pressure on UF.

UCF struck first on a penalty kick that was awarded for a foul by UF defender Ashley Harris in the first half, then jumped on the Gators for two goals in two minutes in the opening minutes of the second half. UCF showed a lot of character late in the game when Florida mounted its comeback, and for the Knights, being able to hold on was a matter of gaining some Sunshine State respect.

"If there is one thing we could have wished for it was to beat Florida," said UCF's Courtney Baines, who recorded a goal and assist.

"Every best Florida team really underestimates us and we definitely wanted to prove ourselves out there," the Knights' Jennifer Montgomery added.

Down 3-0 with time running out, Florida's senior team leader and two-time SEC Player of the Year, Stephanie Freeman, got the comeback going for the Gators with a goal on a free kick from 20 yards out, a goal that proved to be the final goal of her outstanding collegiate career.

"We had come back from that before and after they scored there was no moping around," Freeman said as she battled back the tears at the post-game press conference. "We were all getting each other up and we knew we could do it."

But even though they closed the gap to 3-2, time ran out and a post-season that began with so much promise ended in tremendous disappointment.

"I'm sure after the initial shock of this game, I'll look back and know that we still had a pretty good season," said Freeman. "The fun stuff I did with my teammates off the field is what I'll remember the most."

While the Gators may have lost at home, Burleigh didn't short change the contribution of her senior squad and the memory of a season freshly ended.

"This team had its ups and downs, but certainly this senior class had laid the groundwork for the future of our team," she said. "It was really big for us to win SEC's and I think these seniors (Freeman, Monica Hoyles, Christine Johnson and Ashley Kellgren) should be proud of themselves, like I am with the leadership job they have done both on and off the field."

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