As the No. 1 seed in the America East tournament for the first time in school history, the UMBC women's soccer team played like a favorite.
The Retrievers got goals from sophomore forward Alexa Quaranta and junior defender Morgan Taylor in the first half and then locked down No. 4 seed Hartford in the second half en route to a 2-0 semifinal victory at Retriever Soccer Park on Sunday.
UMBC, which improved to 12-5-2, will try to win its first tournament crown when No. 2 seed Stony Brook visits Catonsville on Saturday at 7 p.m. The Seawolves (12-5-2) outlasted No. 3 seed Maine, 3-1, on penalty kicks on Sunday.
The Retrievers had not played since beating New Hampshire, 2-1, on Oct. 27, but they did not show any signs of rust against the Hawks, which delighted coach Leslie Wray.
"We were absolutely prepared for this," she said. "The response was great. There's no perfect game out there, but in terms of energy, we had it today."
UMBC, which earned its first conference tournament win and set a program high in single-season victories, did not waste much time asserting itself. Just 12 minutes, 44 seconds into the first half, the Retrievers were awarded a direct kick just outside the box.
While Hartford was organizing its defense, sophomore back Nikki Boretti (Archbishop Spalding) tapped the ball to her right, where Quaranta corralled the pass and blasted a shot with her right foot inside the left post and into the net.
Quaranta, a Baltimore native and Perry Hall graduate, said she and Boretti instantly recognized an opportunity.
"We've been working on quick restarts in practice," she said. "The girls' backs were turned as they were setting up the wall. So me and Nikki took advantage of that, and she played me a ball out wide, and I finished it."
Then with 7:41 left in the period, junior midfielder Jessy Brown directed the ball toward Taylor, standing along the right sideline. Taylor launched the ball toward freshman goalkeeper Jessica Jurg, who blocked the ball to the turf with her hands. But officials ruled that the ball had crossed the goal line and awarded UMBC a 2-0 lead.
Taylor, a Severna Park native and graduate, acknowledged that shooting the ball was not her first inclination.
"If I'm being honest, it was meant to go far post and have someone finish it," she said. "But the wind was at our advantage and it just went the way it wanted to go and it went in."
The Hawks had three corner kicks to the Retrievers' two and tried to close the gap in the second half. Just 90 seconds into the period, sophomore forward Elise Galipo trapped a pass inside the box, but her shot was blocked by Taylor, and a Hartford teammate was whistled for a hand ball.
With 25:39 remaining in regulation, junior midfielder Stephanie Santos sent a corner kick to a scrum in front of the UMBC net. The ball bounced out to junior midfielder Chanel Johnson, and her right-footed shot went straight to senior goalie Lauren Kadet (four saves).
Johnson, the conference's Striker of the Year after scoring nine goals and three assists this season, and Santos, the co-Midfielder of the Year along with the Retrievers' Brown, combined for five shots, but were thwarted by UMBC sophomore defender Amira Walcott and junior midfielder Paige Preston, respectively.
Collecting the program's first automatic bid to the NCAA tournament is a suddenly tantalizing goal for Preston and her teammates.
"It's the tournament now," she said. "So everybody is fired up, everybody has a new round of energy, and it's a great win. It's great to keep our momentum going. Coach was saying we're on a high right now, and nobody can stop us. It's all of our heart coming out on the field. It's not who's better or who's worse. Everyone is good at this point. It's about who's coming out and putting more heart into it, and today we did that, and it feels awesome."