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Attack mode: Forwards lead women's soccer to 3-1 first-round win

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Jon Lipsitz saw an opportunity.

His team having finally broken through five minutes into the second half on a goal by Caitlin Landis, Lipsitz shouted from the bench, "Intensity."

Not willing to settle for a 1-0 lead in Kentucky's NCAA Tournament opener against Ohio State, he demanded more. Lipsitz wanted the Wildcats to go in for the kill.

"That's what I sensed," Lipsitz said. "That it was the moment and it was time and not to let them off the hook."

In less than three minutes, the Cats delivered.

Following through on her coach's sideline direction, Arin Gilliland created a breakaway chance with a tackle at midfield and raced into the box before calmly slotting a shot far post past the outstretch hands of Buckeye keeper Jillian McVicker.

Gilliland's approach in tallying her team-high 11th goal was but one example of the relentlessness Lipsitz wants his players to show.

"I wanted our forwards to have a mentality where you're just assassins," Lipsitz said. "You just refuse to be stopped and you're just going to go and go and go."

On Friday night, they went and went and went.

Each member of the the attacking trio of Gilliland, Landis and Zoe Swift scored a goal in Kentucky's 3-1 win over Ohio State. They fired 19 shots between the three of them and tallied a pair of assists.

"We literally were probably in each other's head is how I felt," Gilliland said. "Anytime I would look up and want them to be in a certain spot, they were there. And I'm sure they felt the exact same way. It was just this connection we had today in the game and it's a soccer player's dream to have that."

From the opening kickoff, the three forwards were firing on all cylinders, but a goal escaped them during the first half. With 12 shots and five corners in the first half, UK dominated everywhere but the place where it counts: the scoreboard.

In the halftime locker room, Lipsitz was sure to point out to the Cats how well they had played. However, he's not a believer that past opportunities serve as any indication that goals are forthcoming.

"It's not going to come unless we make it come," Lipsitz told his team. "It doesn't just happen. We have to make the decision it's going to happen."

After the way UK practiced this week, Lipsitz had little doubt the Cats would make that decision.

"I'm not one for a lot of coach-speak," Lipsitz said, "so when I got interviewed this week I said, 'Look, this is the best week of training we've had. We're really sharp. We've done the work and we've prepared and we're taking care of details and we're ready.' "

Starting last Monday, Lipsitz organized training sessions leading up to the NCAA Tournament as if UK were preparing for its season opener.

"The beginning of the week, we were just getting at it and it felt like another preseason just going after each other and being physical," Landis said.

Swift -- one of a handful of freshmen playing featured roles on an injury-depleted team -- got some personalized coaching during UK's second training camp.

Lipsitz has pushed Swift all season long and she's responded almost all the time, earning All-Southeastern Conference Freshman Team honors and scoring nine goals, including the one she had Friday. But during UK's second preseason, Lipsitz refined her role and put Swift back in her comfort zone.

"I think he brought me back in so I could feel more confident," Swift said. "But then I know he's just going to bring me back out of my comfort zone. I'm just getting ready for it."

Swift didn't have to wait long for her first NCAA win, but the same can't be said about the UK program. Last year, the Cats won in the tournament for the first time in program history, prompting an emotional postgame press conference for Lipsitz.

This time around, the feeling was different. Winning on Friday was about living up to expectations.

"Our standards are: We're hosting the first round of the NCAA Tournament, we've earned it and we win," Lipsitz said. "That's our standard now."

Landis and her fellow seniors have played a central role in building the UK program toward reaching that standard. The Cats have played and hosted in the NCAA Tournament three straight years now and advanced to the second round back-to-back times.

The senior forward was briefly willing to reflect on her time at UK, but she's not ready to start using the past tense just yet. Landis is too busy thinking about a matchup with either No. 2 UCLA or San Diego State next Friday.

"Going at it and getting better, it's a fun experience and I'm going to really miss it," Landis said. "But, yeah, we're not done yet."

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