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Rutgers eliminated from NCAA Tournament in first-round defeat

Ninety-five days ago, the Rutgers women's soccer team opened up its season at Yurcak Field against Central Connecticut State. On Friday night, the No. 4-seeded Scarlet Knights (15-4-2, 8-2-1) faced a rematch in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. With this game, one team would see its season end with the same matchup with which it began.

Rutgers couldn’t get the go-ahead goal it needed, and conceded a late-winner to end its season with a heart-breaker at home.

The Knights completely controlled the opening 15 minutes of the game, but only managed to generate a single attempt on goal.

In the 17th minute, the Blue Devils (13-4-4, 9-1-1) had their first real opportunity to take the lead. After a foul was called just outside the 18-yard box, the initial free kick was stopped. The follow-up bounced dangerously in front of sophomore goalkeeper Meagan McClelland, but was pulled just wide of the right post.

The best chance of the half came in the 32nd minute, when junior forward Amirah Ali had a clean look at goal from the point-blank range. The shot ringed off the left post, though, and Central Connecticut State was able to get out of trouble.

The game went to halftime tied with no score, thanks in large part to Blue Devil Amanda McQuillan, who had three saves.

In the 47th minute, Ali threatened to break the tie, beating three defenders to get one-on-one with McQuillan inside the 18. The keeper was up to the task, getting down low to make the clutch stop.

It looked as though the tide of the game would turn in the 70th minute, when senior forward Brittany LaPlant was brought down in the box. Ali stepped up to take another big-time shot — but the spot kick went high and wide of the right post.

Rutgers kept pressing for the go-ahead score, and it almost had it in the 85th minute. Senior midfielder Taylor Aylmer sent a cross into the box off a set piece that found the head of senior back Amanda Visco, but McQuillan made the point-blank stop.

Four minutes later, the dagger came. Erica Bardes delivered a cross from the right flank. It took an unfortunate curve, and found the back of the net to give Central Connecticut State a decisive 1-0 lead.

It was a frustrating night for the Knights' attack, which was kept off the scoresheet despite out-shooting the Blue Devils 18-6. Most of the credit for Central Connecticut State has to go to McQuillan — she finished with 11 saves.

"We did more than enough to win the match, but soccer was cruel to us tonight,” said head coach Mike O’Neill. “(McQuillan) made some great saves and sometimes that's the way the game goes.”

The loss was a crushing end to a very successful season for Rutgers – this year’s group finished with 15 wins, the third most in program history.

It also marked the end of the run for a very successful senior class led by players like Visco, Alymer and Wiltshire. In their four years with the program, they finished with an overall record of 51-15-19 and a Big Ten record of 25-7-12.

“I want to thank (the seniors) so much for everything that they have done for the program, their hard work, dedication and the memories they have created both on and off the field,” O’Neill said. “They will be missed, but they will forever be part of the Rutgers women's soccer family.”

The 2019 campaign marked the latest edition of a consistent run of success under O’Neill. The Knights have now played in every NCAA Tournament since 2011, and have qualified for every Big Ten Tournament since joining the conference in 2014. Most of their core pieces will be back next year, though, and Rutgers will look to pick up right where it left off.

For updates on the Rutgers women's soccer team, follow @TargumSports on Twitter.

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