CHAMPAIGN – With Illinois' first-ever NCAA Tournament win in hand, the women's soccer team's scorekeepers began kidding Laura Freeman about her new Illini hair.
The sophomore sported an orange and blue 'do against Xavier on Wednesday night at Illini Field. While checking in late in the game, she joked, "Hopefully, it washes out."
After scoring both goals in a 2-0 Illinois win, you can expect Freeman to be flying the colors for Sunday's noon second-round game at Penn State – Illinois' third meeting with the Nittany Lions this season.
"It's good luck now," Freeman said of her colorful coiffure.
Illini coach Tricia Taliaferro smiled and shook her head at that remark. But Freeman made more than a fashion statement.
Starting for the first time this season in place of the departed Lisa Baldwin, the Tennessean scored in each half of Illinois' latest milestone victory.
"(The coaches are) sticking me in a position that hopefully I can do my best," Freeman said. "I gave it all I got. We knew coming out we could beat this team. We took it to them. We really wanted to win and prove that we can beat these teams and we can compete with these people."
The Illini (14-7-0) proved it on the NCAA Tournament stage. And although Freeman said there were nerves because "we're in the big time now," they didn't last.
Even with the Penn State rematch looming on the horizon, the NCAA rookies finished off a Xavier (14-7-1) team that hadn't lost for more than a month.
"I'm pleased with the way we came out – just being our first time to play in the NCAA Tournament – the level of intensity," Taliaferro said. "We knocked the ball around. We took care of the opportunities we had.
"With the Big Ten Tournament, it was a maturity thing where we did the same thing – not looking ahead but taking care of what we needed to take care of."
Just 16:55 into the game, Freeman headed a Tara Schuling corner kick off a Musketeer defender and into the net for a 1-0 lead.
Less than a minute into the second half, Freeman took a pass from defender Heidi Holtzman, beat her defender and fired in her second goal past a diving Megan Veith.
"I thought they played well, moved the ball quite well," Musketeers coach Ron Quinn said. "To Illinois' credit, they created opportunities and they were able to finish on two of them."
Quinn also praised the Illini defense, which dogged top scorer Annette Gruber all night and held Xavier to six shots on goal and even came up with a team save.
Illinois also had to contend with Musketeers midfielder Nicole Giesting, a former gymnast whose long flip throws delighted the chilly crowd.
"It's been awhile, since high school, since we've had a flip thrower," Illini defender Sue Hodson said. "We stacked on (Gruber), who seemed to be their go-to player. We had one person in front of her and one person behind her.
"Either way, someone's going to go up with her and she's not going to have a good shot at the ball. That worked really well tonight."