By Jeff Owens
Florida Gulf Coast did everything it could to contain South Carolina's Savannah McCaskill Friday night at Stone Stadium.
The Eagles double- and triple-teamed her. They roughed her up. They knocked her to the ground and they desperately tried to take her out of every play.
But the Gamecock All-American was too much for the Atlantic Sun conference champions.
McCaskill, the SEC Player of the Year and a member of the U.S. Women's National Team this summer, had an assist in the first half and then buried a second-half penalty kick to lead No. 4 South Carolina to a 2-1 win at Stone Stadium. The Gamecocks, the defending SEC champions, are 2-0 after a season-opening win over Central Florida Friday night.
"You want the ball on her foot," head coach Shelley Smith said of her star player. "She is an excellent player and they did a good job of trying to take her out of the game. She will probably have a couple of bruises but she held strong and did well to put pressure on them and other players found a way to finish for us."
The Gamecocks led 1-0 at the half on a goal by sophomore forward Elexa Bahr. Florida Gulf Coast tied it on a penalty kick early in the second half, but freshman Lauren Chang pushed the ball deep into the Eagle zone and drew a penalty shot.
McCaskill buried the kick high into the left side of the net to give the Gamecocks the lead and the game-winning goal.
"Lauren Chang did a tremendous job to create that penalty," Smith said. "She was aggressive in running the final third, and that's what we want out of our players in that area."
"After they tied it up, we were really just trying to push forward and get a goal, and I was really proud of the way the team responded," McCaskill said. "For Chang to push up the ball and drive it to the box and draw that foul, it was great to see them keep fighting and finish it off."
McCaskill, a senior striker, set a school record for goals (17) and points (45) last season and led the SEC with 10 game-winners. When she stepped up for the deciding kick, it was all but over for the Eagles.
"You just have to go up with confidence and pick a spot and put it through," McCaskill said. "I just kind of went for power and finished it."
The Eagles hounded McCaskill all night in the middle of the field, but she broke through in the first half to dish a pass to Bahr near the top of the box. Bahr blasted it through the defense to give South Carolina a 1-0 lead.
It marked the second straight game that McCaskill and Bahr hooked up for a scoring play.
"Elexa came up huge," Smith said. "Savannah draws the attention and we just have to find open players and we have to hope that they are going to step up and finish their chances.
"That's a credit to Savannah to find open players. She is going to draw attention and she has got to be able to dish a ball to those around her. She's not going to be able to dribble by two or three players in the middle of the field. She is doing a good job finding open players."
The performance led to a solid win against a tough opponent early in the season. Smith was pleased with the way her team held Florida Gulf Coast in check.
"I think it was another tough game for us, but we did well to weather some things that didn't always go our way," she said. "It was a tough opponent, aggressive and they had some very good kids up top that could have hurt us but I think our defense held strong and battled. We found a way to win."
The Gamecocks are off to a 2-0 start with a road game at Wake Forest coming up on Thursday.
"The fact that we've come out with two wins on the weekend is an excellent start," she said. "Tonight was a good test for how you are going to react. I think we had a lot of possessions and then when they got a chance to tie it up, you want to see how your team is going to react and I thought they did a great job to come back and get the goal they needed to find a way to win."