Vanderbilt advances to SEC Tournament semifinals with 4-2 victory over Tennessee

The Commodores live to see another day. Their victory over Tennessee moves Vanderbilt into the semifinals, needing just two more wins for an SEC Championship.

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Haley Hopkins in the 2020 regular season finale against Ole Miss. (Hustler Multimedia/Truman McDaniel)

Simon Gibbs, Sports Editor

Vanderbilt, the seventh-seeded team in the Southeastern Conference (SEC) Tournament, entered Tuesday’s contest with a mountainous challenge: pull off an upset against the in-state rival, second-seeded Tennessee Volunteers—the same team to which Vanderbilt lost 1-0 in overtime on Sept. 27—and advance to the semifinals, or lose and see their season come to an abrupt end.

The result—a 4-2 victory over the heavily-favored Volunteers—sent Tennessee back to Rocky Top, while Vanderbilt prepares for a semifinal clash in the SEC Tournament.

The Commodores took the field in Orange Beach, Alabama on Tuesday with an unmatched intensity from the game’s first whistle. Darren Ambrose’s bunch were routinely finding opportunities early on, with much of the offense orchestrated by star senior forward Haley Hopkins.

Hopkins had a couple opportunities within the first ten minutes of the game, the second of which came in the sixth minute, when she used her pace to find separation from Tennessee’s Mackenzie Ostrom. But as Hopkins neared the box with only the goalkeeper left to beat, Ostrom ripped her down by the shirt and stopped the attack with a foul. Luckily for Tennessee, she managed to only pick up a yellow card.

Perhaps the foul ignited Vanderbilt’s offense; a mere few seconds later, the Commodores struck first in the seventh minute.

Senior midfielder Leila Azari held possession out wide, and just as the Tennessee defender closed in, Azari launched a high-arcing cross aimed at Hopkins. While the ball sailed over the outstretched header attempt from Hopkins, it landed right at the feet of senior midfielder Maddie Elwell.

Elwell, who entered the SEC Tournament without a goal on the season, controlled the ball and made the Tennessee defender tumble, before tucking away her second goal of the SEC Tournament.

Despite the two teams playing a low-scoring, 1-0 overtime contest earlier this season, they both came out with an offensive vengeance in the first half. Ten minutes after Elwell’s goal, in the 17th minute, Azari padded her statline with a goal of her own—this one scored off a Tennessee deflection.

Tennessee was able to respond shortly thereafter, with Mackenzie George sneaking past Vanderbilt defender Ella Shamburger in the 22nd minute and scoring the Volunteers’ first goal of the contest. 

George’s goal shortened the deficit to 2-1, where it stayed for the rest of the first half. The second part of the half was quiet, thanks in part to both offenses slowing down, and some excellent goalkeeping from Vanderbilt’s Sarah Fuller who, seconds after Tennessee’s first goal, stopped the Volunteers from equalizing.

The second half saw Vanderbilt make multiple dangerous runs into the offensive third, highlighted by strong attacking play from Hopkins and Azari. Azari even had a shot deflect off the arm of a Tennessee defender—what appeared to be a handball in the box, which would grant Vanderbilt a penalty kick—but the referees remained silent.

That is, they remained silent until the 58th minute, when a Tennessee defender collided with a Commodore and gave Vanderbilt a crucial chance to extend their lead with a penalty kick. 

Sophomore midfielder Kimya Raietparvar, who entered the game without a collegiate goal, stepped up in a big way for Vanderbilt, drilling the penalty kick and extending the lead to 3-1.

But Vanderbilt didn’t stop there. The Commodores entered the tournament without having amassed four goals in a single contest this season; they did just that in a 4-0 thrashing of Mississippi State in the first round, then they repeated the performance against Tennessee—with Fuller, the goalkeeper, picking up an assist.

Fuller airmailed a free kick nearly the length of the field, and junior midfielder Raegan Kelley—still in stride—took off for an acrobatic, one-time volley to make the Commodores lead 4-1.

Fittingly, the highlight-reel goal was Vanderbilt’s final goal of the contest. In the 85th minute, George netted her second goal of the contest for the Volunteers, making the score 4-2. But ultimately, it was too little, too late.

The Commodores now head to the SEC Tournament semifinals, needing just two wins for the tournament crown. They will face the winner of No. 3 Texas A&M and No. 14 LSU on Thursday at 8:30 p.m. CST.