Throughout a 2018 campaign that's been both tantalizing and frustrating, Missouri soccer's defense has led the way. The Tigers' efforts in their own end have been consistently excellent and given desperately-needed stability to a team that's struggled to score goals.
Perhaps it's all the more fitting that Missouri had significant defensive lapses in the team's most important game of the year.
No. 7 seed LSU got three goals from star senior forward Alex Thomas to win 3-2 in overtime on Sunday afternoon in the first round of the Southeastern Conference Tournament in Orange Beach, Alabama. The game ended No. 10 seed Missouri's seesaw season.
LSU started the game the same way it did in its 2-1 victory over Missouri on Oct. 7 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana: with an early goal. The Bayou Bengals got on the board in the game's first minutes when Thomas fielded a cross into the box that somehow got through the legs of two Missouri defenders. She didn't miss the open net directly in front of her, giving her team a 1-0 lead in the fourth minute.
After the early goal, LSU inexplicably laid off the pressure and dropped many of its players into its back third of the pitch. The move gave Missouri a chance to slowly battle its way back into the game by holding possession and putting some shots in the direction of LSU goalkeeper Caroline Brockmeier.
That offensive strategy proved to be effective. With Missouri still trailing 1-0 in the 37th minute, freshman Julissa Cisneros, who was named to the SEC's All-Freshman team Sunday morning, found some space in the middle of the pitch. She darted towards LSU's 18-yard box and fired a shot from 20 yards out just as an LSU defender was closing in on her. The shot found its mark, giving Missouri the equalizer going into halftime.
Since Missouri was in control for about the final 15 minutes of the first half, LSU made a halftime adjustment to send more players into Missouri's third of the pitch as the second half began. This opened up the game for both teams, as the ball sailed from one side of the pitch to the other for much of the second half. Although this gave Missouri more opportunities for set pieces, it also gave Thomas more room to run.
It proved to be Thomas who took advantage of the game's change in pace.
In the 81st minute with the contest still knotted at 1, Thomas was just inside Missouri's box with junior defender Peyton Joseph in front of her. The veteran LSU striker took advantage of the opportunity, performing a stutter-step move to give herself room to shoot before putting the ball into the bottom corner of the net that a diving Kelsey Dossey couldn't stop.
At that moment, it appeared Missouri's season was over. After all, the team had scored multiple goals in a game just five times during the regular season. But Cisneros' motor and a lucky bounce proved to be enough to send the game to overtime.
Four minutes after Thomas' second goal of the contest, Cisneros picked up her second as well, when she scored on a penalty kick that was set up by her cross into the box that resulted in a LSU hand ball.
Despite losing redshirt junior midfielder Madison Lewis and freshman defender Ariela Beharry to injuries in the final five minutes of regular time, Missouri had considerably more energy than LSU in the first overtime period. The black-and-gold Tigers outshot LSU 7-2 in the period, but just one of those a volley from sophomore midfielder Bella Alessi resulted in a decent scoring chance for them.
Missouri's lack of quality overtime chances proved to be debilitating for the team, as LSU started the second overtime period with the energy that Missouri had in the first. But unlike the Tigers of Missouri, the Tigers of Baton Rouge turned that energy into a game-winning goal.
The death blow for Missouri came in the 104th minute. Thomas drew a penalty in the box from Missouri freshman forward Blythe Beldner, who attempted to stop Thomas as she headed full speed toward Missouri's goal. But Beldner grabbed onto Thomas' hand as she drove past, pulling her to the ground and drawing a whistle. Dossey guessed right on the ensuing penalty kick but couldn't get to Thomas' shot in time. She could only watch in disgust as LSU's bench poured out onto the field to celebrate their senior hero.
The loss ended the Missouri careers of seniors Rachel Hise, Lauren Gaston and Dossey. Next season, the Tigers will hope to replace Dossey in goal with one of two other goalkeepers currently on the roster: redshirt sophomore Mercedes Sapp or redshirt freshman Peyton Bauman.
Supervising editor is Eric Lee.