Arin Gilliland converts the first penalty of the shootout. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
There was a big "red wall," and the Kentucky women's soccer team couldn't quite break it down. Such was the way UK head coach Jon Lipsitz described playing against Southern Illinois University Edwardsville in Saturday's first-round NCAA Tournament game.
The match unfolded in one of the scenarios you really only see in soccer.
One team dominates, so much so that the other side gives up on trying to score, yet the result is a tie. And not only that, but then determining the winner comes down to a 50/50 lottery.
Such was the case under frigid conditions at the Wendell & Vickie Bell Soccer complex. The Wildcats won, 4-2, in the penalty shootout after the game ended tied 0-0 through 90 minutes and two overtimes, but advancing to the final 32 in the NCAA Tournament was no easy task.
By any measure Southern Illinois University Edwardsville parked the proverbial bus.
And as many times as UK's offensive attacks created cracks in the wall, the Cats could not break through.
The Wildcats didn't play poorly; in fact they created a massive quantity of chances. Thirty-one shots, eight of them on goal, another shot that agonizingly went off the cross bar and 17 corners, but UK couldn't score over 110 minutes so the game went to penalties.
"People will look at it and say how did you not score? Well we had 18 shots in the second half and nine corners," Lipsitz said. "They had two back saves, we had a ball literally on the line. I mean, that is frustrating but at the same time you know what I am going to say to my team? I thought we acted very well after halftime and played very well.
"Got ourselves more than enough opportunities and it was not like the first half where I thought we weren't really creating enough opportunities. In the second half and overtime, I thought we played extremely well. We created great opportunities in the box where we just missed or they blocked a lot of shots. Credit to them and obviously we are going to work on some finishing and cleaning things up in the box this week."
So a win or go home NCAA Tournament First-Round game came down to the lottery that is penalties.
Despite all but giving up on scoring after 60 minutes in a 90-minute game, the Ohio Valley Conference's SIUE had just as good a chance to advance in the NCAA Tournament as a nationally seeded Kentucky.
That said, the likes of Arin Gilliland would not let the season end.
The cliche of a senior standout performer living to fight another day in the NCAA Tournament has been analyzed many times, and Gilliland seemed to perpetuate that recurring storyline on Saturday.
Gilliland took a knock to her foot in last Sunday's Southeastern Conference championship game against Texas A&M, and the injury seemed to limit her against SIUE. But the pain apparently wasn't enough to keep her from creating UK's two best chances of the night, and expertly convert UK's first penalty of the shootout.
"(Arin Gilliland) steps up and hammers home the first one," Lipsitz said. "And she got really beaten up in the Texas A&M game less than a week ago believe it or not. I had to actually ask her 'can you take a PK?' because of her foot. She looked right at me and said 'I am taking a PK.' OK she is taking a PK.
"But I literally had 2, 3, 4, and 5 written down and I did not have a No. 1 shooter written down because I didn't know this morning when I was doing this if Gilly would be able to shoot or not. So I am proud of our toughness and our ability to just stick to the plan to the details necessary and find a way to advance."
The way Gilliland converted the penalty -- hammered into the top-left corner of the goal at a pace that made the shot unstoppable -- spoke to her determination. To inspire her team to victory, to play through pain and just to keep her college career going.
Such determination could also be attributed to UK freshman goalie Taylor Braun. The shot stopper ended the shootout with a diving stop, giving the Wildcats an unsurmountable 4-2 advantage.
But to be as focused as she was all game, and more importantly in the shootout, after never seriously being troubled or even having an opposing player come within 30 yards of her over 110 minutes of open-field action was commendable.
As well as Braun, and Gilliland and the rest of the Wildcats did in keeping focus and making the plays needed to win, their performances were in keeping with a saying that has become something of a mantra for Lipzitz and his Wildcats.
They were doing their "jobs."
For Gilliland it was leading, if only by example if not by scoring the first penalty. And for Braun it was making just one save in a shootout where UK's players were a perfect 4-of-4 on their kicks.
"Through the game, it's important as a goalkeeper, even when you're not getting any action, that you're still getting work, to stay focused and continue doing the details and communicating throughout the whole thing," Braun said. "It's easy to get disengaged when there is not much action. Going into PKs, I got excited, because I'm confident in my team and the way that we practiced them and the way that we handle pressure situation.
"I just knew that we were going to come out with a win after. I love pressure. I knew that all I needed to do was save one, like Jon said. Just do your job, just save one. That's what I did tonight, and it felt great to pull it out."
UK's next "job" will be to prepare for a Friday 3 p.m. ET Second-Round NCAA Tournament matchup with Arizona State in Charlottesville, Va.
UK opens NCAA Tournament play at home against SIUE on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. ET. (UK Athletics)
The Kentucky women's soccer team has been at it for almost three months now. Not only that, the Wildcats had just returned from a weeklong road trip and a 12-hour bus ride at 6:30 a.m.
Naturally, Jon Lipsitz's wife asked him if he was tired.
"Heck yeah," Lipsitz told her. "That's exactly how I want to feel right now."
When the alternative is sitting at home, the choice is clear.
"When you get to the end of the year and everybody's a little worn down, it's the greatest feeling in the world," Lipsitz said. "So many teams are done and here we are, one of the 64 teams playing in the NCAAs and one of the 32 teams hosting."
The Cats are at home, but they're doing anything but sitting this week. UK will play host to SIU Edwardsville in a first-round NCAA Tournament matchup at 7:30 p.m. at the Wendell & Vickie Bell Soccer Complex.
"A great challenge for us," Lipsitz said. "I know that they're very excited. First time for them and I remember what that feels like. I know that they'll be sky high when they get here and I think a quick start for us is very important."
UK, a national seed in the tournament for the first time in school history, enters the favorite. The label, an unfamiliar one for a program still growing, is one that might pose a danger of overlooking an SIUE team that has impressed Lipsitz in watching tape. SIUE's Ohio Valley Conference Tournament performance caught Lipsitz's eye in particular, a game in which the Cougars overcame a two-goal deficit with less than 10 minutes remaining to punch their NCAA Tournament tickets in overtime.
"That's a pretty amazing, resilient team to be able to do something like that," Lipsitz said.
Resilient is a word that can be used to describe UK as well.
A little more than a month ago, the Cats were on the outside of the NCAA Tournament looking in, sporting an RPI of 59 on the heels of four losses in six matches. Since, UK has won eight times in nine matches, only dropping the Southeastern Conference Tournament final against NCAA No. 1 seed Texas A&M.
Combine that with the No. 3 seed and you have a recipe for a team in danger of resting on its laurels and expecting a win to come easily, but the Cats aren't about to fall victim to that, not with senior captains Stuart Pope and Arin Gilliland leading the way.
Within minutes of learning UK's seeding, Pope said it no longer mattered.
"It's interesting being in training with the team because there's been zero discussion of the things that we've accomplished so far," Lipsitz said. "Obviously I'm proud of what we've accomplished over time, the four years with this group, but they haven't mentioned it at all. For them it's one game. We're getting ready for Saturday and for us as a staff it's one game and getting ready for it."
The first step in that preparation was recovering from playing three games in five days at the SEC Tournament, which Lipsitz said "crushes you physically." Accordingly, UK took an off day on Monday and went light on Tuesday.
"We started getting back after it Wednesday and (Thursday) was the first day I saw a change of pace in what they were doing," Lipsitz said. "I saw some pop, as we call it, in their runs. Things started coming together (Thursday)."
That happened with temperatures dropping into the 30s as will be the case on at kickoff on Saturday night. But like with late-season exhaustion, the Cats aren't about to let a little November chill affect them.
"We couldn't care less," Lipsitz said. "Our choice is be out on a cold night, colder than usual this time of year, playing an NCAA game or being done with the season. Yeah, I think we're going to be excited. We're definitely going to be excited."
Jon Lipsitz isn't a coach who avoids NCAA Tournament talk with his team. His ultimate goals for Kentucky lie in the postseason and he's not afraid to let the Wildcats know.
A little more than a month ago, he proved it.
UK had just lost for the fourth time in six matches, dropping its RPI to 59th. After a defeat at Texas A&M on Oct. 5, Lipsitz told the Cats all about how their postseason lives were on the line.
"We handed it out to the team and we said, 'Look, we need to make it clear: We're not in the NCAA Tournament,' " Lipsitz said. " 'And we're not even on the bubble.' "
That was the beginning of a Tuesday tradition for the UK women's soccer program. Lipsitz would print sheets with Kentucky's RPI and upcoming opponents each week and distribute them to his team. In his office, he's kept the sheets to track the Cats' progress, all with one thing in mind.
"Our goal from that moment on was to get seeded," Lipsitz said. "It's something that hasn't happened."
On Monday, it did.
Gathered in the team lounge at the Wendell & Vickie Bell Soccer Complex, the Cats watched as they received a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament, a program first. UK will play host to SIU Edwardsville (13-6-1, 8-2-0 Ohio Valley Conference) at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, marking the fourth straight season the Cats have hosted in the first round.
"I don't think any of us in this room were surprised that we got seeded," Stuart Pope said. "We've all been in here the last month and we've seen the change that's happened to our team."
That change, in large part, has been inspired by Pope and her fellow senior captain, Arin Gilliland. Charged with leading a team that relies on many young players, Pope and Gilliland have taken it upon themselves to reinforce and amplify their coach's message.
"We've only got three seniors and everyone else is underclassmen," said Gilliland, the Southeastern Conference Defensive Player of the Year. "So we're a young team. The fact that we had the mental toughness to come back and approach everything and say, 'We're going do this. We're going to make the NCAAs,' says a lot about who they are at a team and who they're going to continue to be."
That's spoken like a player who thinks every day about the legacy her senior class will leave behind. Gilliland, the best player in the history of the program by almost any measure, has been a centerpiece in UK's ascendance these last four years.
In her freshman season, UK returned to the tournament for the first time in 2006. A year later, the Cats won their first-ever NCAA Tournament game. In 2013, Gilliland became the third All-American in school history. Now, the national seed.
"We're doing things every year that haven't been done before," Gilliland said. "That's kind of something we like to do. What have we not done yet that can be done in this program? I think that's something we're leaving with the classes below us."
But before the seniors leave the program in the capable hands of their younger teams, there's work to be done. With two wins UK would reach the Sweet 16 for the first time in school history, but UK's only concern at this point is SIU Edwardsville.
"We always prepare for success and we'll be prepare for each match, but we will not even look at film or discuss film on anyone other than our Saturday opponent," Lipsitz said. "That's all that matters to us."
UK has won first-round NCAA matches each of the last two seasons, but the Cats enter the tournament differently than they ever have. For starters, they'll be carrying the label of favorite that comes with that No. 3 seed.
"It's great that we're seeded, but seeds don't mean anything in the NCAA," Pope said. "You have to come out ready like you're playing the No. 1 seed, like you're the underdog. Because if you don't, if you come in expecting to win, someone's going to catch someone. And we're not going to let that be us."
The other reason why this NCAA appearance is different has everything to do with Pope's "we're-not-going-to-let-that-be-us" confidence.
After that loss to Texas A&M, UK reeled off eight straight wins, including two in the Southeastern Conference Tournament to set up a finals rematch with the Aggies in Orange Beach, Ala. The Cats would lose 1-0 on Sunday, but they did so going toe to toe with an A&M team that received a No. 1 seed on Monday.
"Before the bus pulled away from Orange Beach, I got on the bus and I said to the team, 'I am more confident in our ability today than I was before the game,' " Lipsitz said. "We lost the game and all congratulations to Texas A&M, but the way we played told me that we're ready and told me that we're playing our best soccer at the end of the year and I think that's a big difference from the past."
It also doesn't hurt that UK will play in the friendly confines of the Bell Soccer Complex, a beautiful new facility that opened this season.
"There's something different, a different feeling, about being on your home field, something that's comfortable about that," Gilliland said. "It lets you really just be in your element and I know everyone's going to rise up and do what they need to do."
In short, Gilliland couldn't think of a better place to start her final NCAA Tournament run.
"We want to go as far as we can in this NCAA Tournament and I think we've got a great setup to do so," Gilliland said. "We're going to continue to lead our team the best way we know how."
Arin Gilliland and her fellow seniors won their home regular-season finale against Alabama on Thursday, 2-1. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Arin Gilliland has battled through indescribable adversity in her four years as a Wildcat to cement herself as the best player in the history of the Kentucky women's soccer program.
With all that in mind, Gilliland deserved a winning sendoff.
But 13 minutes into a Senior Night match against Alabama, UK yielded a tying goal.
"We gave up the goal on my mistake," Gilliland said.
As disappointed as she was in herself, allowing the goal only served to turn her final regular-season home match into more of a fairytale finish. In the 86th minute, Cara Ledman's corner kick found Kaitlin Miller, who headed the ball for a goal and a 2-1 victory for No. 24/18 UK (13-5, 8-3 Southeastern Conference).
"My team backed me up and they picked the team up and they got another one," said Gilliland, whose run toward goal forced the corner kick. "They found a way. Those are the kind of games that I live for, when my team finds a way to win in a tough situation. That's why this win is so special to me."
Making it even more special is the fact that UK almost certainly would have lost this game had it been played six weeks ago.
"It wasn't an aesthetically pleasing game, but sometimes you gotta find a way to grind it out," head coach Jon Lipsitz said. "These are the exact wins earlier in the year that were losses. We just didn't grind out the difficult ones and I think that's part of our big change."
Before the "big change," UK had lost four times in six matches. The Cats entered the season with high hopes, but were all of a sudden perilously perched on the NCAA Tournament bubble. Since then, UK has won six matches in a row to secure the No. 3 seed in the SEC Tournament and make a strong case for a national seed in the big dance.
For that reason, Senior Night was hardly a farewell for this class of Gilliland, Stuart Pope, Emma Brown and Maddie Lockridge.
"It feels great, but I'm not sending them off," Lipsitz said. "We've got a lot more to do."
That starts in next week's conference tournament at 3:30 p.m. ET on Wednesday against an opponent to be determined.
As decorated the winningest class in school history is, these seniors have never won a game in the SEC Tournament. Gilliland is going to do everything in her power to change that.
"I never give for-sures, but I'm going to give everything I have and I know my team is going to do the same because they have a completely different attitude this year," Gilliland said. "They have this aggression about them. They have this really tough mentality and they want to win."
Lipsitz credits Gilliland and her fellow seniors for creating that toughness.
"What I right now love about this group is when things were hard we buckled down and we found a way," Lipsitz said. "That's what our program's about and that's the legacy these four are leaving us."
Jon Lipsitz hatched the idea on Wednesday, but he waited tell his team.
With No. 5 Florida visiting on Sunday and the potential for a crucial win, Lipsitz and his coaching staff decided to change formations to match the Gators' 3-5-2 look.
On Saturday, he told his players about the plan.
"Literally, we spent about 10 minutes on a board and 10 minutes on a practice field going over it, and said, 'Just play,' " Lipsitz said.
With minimal rehearsal time, the Kentucky players answered their coach's challenge.
"(The new formation) made it man-to-man, made you responsible individually, and made us play straight-up soccer with them -- and it worked," said senior defender Arin Gilliland. "Our team completely bought in. We hadn't practiced it, not one day at training."
Once the players bought into Lipsitz's blueprint, the results quickly followed. Substitute forward Zoe Swift found the back of the net in the game's 33rd minute, sparking a momentum swing heavily in UK's favor.
"In the locker room, Jon talked to us about how we just need to stay strong and need to just play our game," Swift said. "When we have our moments, we've got to finish them. That's what we did, and we executed what he told us to do."
With a season-high 1,172 home fans cheering them on, the Wildcats were able to turn that energy into a second goal less than 20 minutes later. The score would remain 2-0 for the rest of the contest, propelling Kentucky (10-5-0, 5-3-0 Southeastern Conference) to victory over the SEC's perennial power.
"The past two weeks of practice have been unbelievable with us," said senior midfielder Stuart Pope, who scored her first goal of the season. "Every detail's been taken care of. We've really picked up... our desire to really make a statement in the SEC and in the nation."
After consecutive SEC road losses to Missouri and Texas A&M, the Wildcats have looked like a different ball club over the past three games.
"We got really mad," Pope said. "We said, 'If things aren't going to go our way on certain things, then we're just going to make sure there's no possible way it could go the other way.' We're not letting outside factors influence us anymore, and we're focusing on details every day in practice."
With three consecutive shutout wins over South Carolina, Ole Miss, and Florida, junior midfielder Courtney Raetzman -- who on assisted Pope's goal -- echoed her captain's statement.
"We've come a long way since the beginning of the season, that's for sure," Raetzman said. "You can tell with more of our confidence in our style of play, we're more comfortable. We just definitely turned it around, and what a good time to do it."
With only three more games remaining before postseason play, the Wildcats are clicking at just the right time. Sunday's victory over Florida proved that they can compete with the best teams in the country. However, Lipsitz was quick to point out that at the end of the day, it's just another win on the season.
"It means a win," Lipsitz said. "It means three points in the conference standings. It means a lot of help with our RPI for the NCAA's. As soon as we hit 12:01 a.m. tomorrow -- and I will tell them this -- it means a win. I'll let them enjoy it until then, but at 12:01 on Monday it's three points."
Courtney Raetzman scored the game-winning second-half goal in UK's win over South Carolina on Friday. (Barry Westerman, UK Athletics)
Rain falling, wind blowing and two tough losses on their mind, the Kentucky Wildcats returned to their home field.
The matchup with a tough South Carolina team was a big one, with precious few opportunities remaining for resume-building wins ahead of the NCAA Tournament.
Even though the conditions were far from ideal, the Cats weren't about to be deterred. The result was an important victory.
"It was definitely huge for us," Courtney Raetzman said. "It showed a lot about our character and coming out here to fight. That's what we came to do."
To Michelle Rayner -- filling in for Jon Lipsitz on Friday night as the head coach served a one-game suspension for a red card given in a loss at Texas A&M on Sunday -- it was that fight that made all the difference for UK (8-5-0, 3-3 Southeastern Conference) in a 1-0 win.
"Loved it. Loved it," Rayner said. "And I think that's really kind of what we've been lacking, is not only the fight but winning the first and second balls and the battle in the midfield and primarily up top, to keep the ball for us. And I think we did a much better job of that today."
The fight was on display in a tough first half, as UK managed to make it out in a scoreless tie with South Carolina (9-4-1, 2-3-1 SEC) in spite of playing into the wind and rain. In the second, Raetzman put away the winner in the 66th minute.
"Cara Ledman crossed it, it goes past everyone and I slid to get it before anyone," Raetzman said. "But big credit goes to my team for that because they built that whole play up."
Raetzman deserves some credit too. She executed the game plan to perfection with her finish.
"As you can see by the goal, Cara Ledman got into the final third, slipped a ball through and we were talking about sliding and diving in the final third to get on the end of things and (Raetzman) did the exact same thing to them," Rayner said. "A good couple adjustments and they did it well."
Kentucky began the bounce-back process on Friday night.
On the heels of back-to-back overtime defeats, the Wildcats took care of business in a 3-0 win over Mississippi State. Their mission for the weekend, however, was far from complete.
On Sunday, UK finished the job with a 2-1 win against Auburn.
"Pepperdine and Arkansas really stung," head coach Jon Lipsitz said. "We needed to find a way to not only win two games, but win a game like this. This is exactly the kind of game that we've been letting get away from us. To play a great team like Auburn and such a well-coached team and to find a way says that there's something in us that we want to find a way to respond."
The game, as Lipsitz said, was hard-fought from start to finish, but UK came out on top. In doing so, the Cats (7-3-0, 2-1-0 Southeastern Conference) swept a crucial conference home weekend.
"We had to," Lipsitz said. "Sometimes your back is up against the wall and you have to find out who you are. When you fall, the question is, are you going to continue to fall or are you getting up?"
UK claimed a first-half lead when Jade Klump scored her fifth goal off a rebound from a shot by Arin Gilliland. It was the second goal the Cats scored off a loose ball in the box this weekend.
"It's not an accident," Lipsitz said. "We do a lot of drills that work on that."
But less than three minutes later, the Tigers (6-4-1, 0-2-1 SEC) responded with a game-tying goal. For the next 36 minutes the two teams would battle to a standstill before Zoe Swift headed in a Cara Ledman corner kick that Alex Carter served back in front of the net.
"I was wide open," Swift said. "I was like, 'If I miss, Jon's going to yell at me.' No, I'm just kidding. I saw I had to put it in the goal, do the details that we talk about in practice."
Open as she may have been, Swift delivered on a week of hard work with the game-winning goal.
"Zoe's been in a little bit of a lull right now and she's very hard on herself," Lipsitz said. "So we've been building her up and saying, 'Look, we know you can do this,' but it comes from work, it comes from doing the basics and she's really had an amazing week of training. I'm not surprised at all that she got one."
UK wasn't surprised to win either, but the Tigers - a "great team," according to Lipsitz - didn't make it easy. In the tougher moments, the Cats remembered they were playing for something bigger on Sunday.
"We just knew that Auburn was a great team and we've been training hard all week," Klump said. "We really enjoyed battling against them, but this was a Kick Cancer Match so we really wanted to come out and battle like those who have battled with cancer."
As part of the annual Kick Cancer Match, UK wore special Nike Volt jerseys that will be auctioned off to benefit the Dance Blue Clinic at the University of Kentucky Children's Hospital. The team also honored cancer sufferers by placing yellow roses on the goal line after the game.
The postgame ceremony was the second of the night, as UK President Eli Capilouto, Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart and Honda's manager of corporate community relations Erik Wedin were in attendance to present Arin Gilliland with the Honda Inspiration Award.
Entering the weekend, Lipsitz didn't hide from the importance of games against Mississippi State and Auburn to his team. What happened after the game served as a reminder that there are more important things still.
"Win or lose, that is secondary," Lipsitz said. "The game is secondary."
When the Kentucky took the field Friday night, the Wildcats weren't thinking about the heartbreak they felt last week in back-to-back overtime losses to Pepperdine and Arkansas.
All that mattered now was bouncing back and taking care of business. The Cats were intently focused on the one thing head coach Jon Lipsitz preached to his team all week in practice.
"We've just sort of gone back to the basics, talking about details," Lipsitz said.
Lipsitz's team took the message to heart, evidenced by a 3-0 victory over conference foe Mississippi State at the Wendell & Vickie Bell Soccer Complex. For Kentucky senior Arin Gilliland, straying away from the basics was exactly what caused the Wildcats to go winless in their previous two matches in spite of mostly solid play in both..
"We're keeping people hanging in the game, we're not doing the details, we're not getting there pressing the ball, and we're not finishing goals that we should be finishing," Gilliland said. "Those are details--those are little things. Today, we came out, we did the basics. To play soccer, you have to do the basics first, and soccer will come. We did that today. (Lipsitz) was right, once again."
Once Gilliland and her teammates implemented Lipsitz's game plan, results quickly followed. Gilliland, a Lexington native, scored her fifth goal of the season off of a perfectly placed cross by Cara Ledman at the match's 52-minute mark.
"It was a great cross by Cara Ledman," Gilliland said. "Every time she crosses the ball, I know exactly where it's going. So, I got to position myself perfectly. That finishing is what we did all week. I did the basics. I stayed over the ball, finished through the goal, and results happened."
After controlling possession for the majority of Friday's game, Kentucky was able to stay composed on the way to its sixth win of the season. Wildcat junior Courtney Raetzman, who scored two of UK's three goals, echoed Lipsitz's back-to-basics mantra.
"What we really focus on is details and doing little things that a lot of other teams don't focus on as much," Raetzman said. "Going back to the basics, we need to keep that simple, and not try to do all these fancy things--like trying to get that game-winning pass or that amazing shot off. More like, we need to play and do the basics. From that, great things will happen."
The Wildcats (6-3-0, 1-1-0 SEC) hope to carry their momentum into Sunday's annual Kick Cancer Match with the Tigers of Auburn University.
"(Auburn is) a great team--very dynamic, very exciting, and very athletic," Lipsitz said. "They're young... and doing great. I'm not surprised that Coach (Karen) Hoppa has them playing well. It'll be a fantastic game, a great challenge and a great event. Obviously, it's a fundraiser for us (to raise money) for pediatric cancer research. We need all of Big Blue Nation here--number one, for a great cause, and as a secondary reason, to root us on."
Freshman Taylor Braun has posted four consecutive shutouts in goal for Kentucky. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
By Brianna Brents, UK Athletics
Freshmen have a choice in joining a college team for the first time: act their age or take control.
Taylor Braun has chosen the latter.
The goalkeeper is stepping up to the plate as a new freshman on the team that lets hard work speak for itself.
In spite of the attitude, Braun was still a little shocked when she was named Co-Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Week only three weeks into the season.
"I have to give credit to my team and my defenders helping me out throughout preseason and through the first couple of our games, but it was definitely an awesome feeling," said Braun.
Braun spent a lot of her summer training and growing to become better at her skill. She selected Kentucky because she wanted to be a part of a team that was continuing to build, and with Jon Lipsitz as the head coach, she wanted to be a part of making a legacy.
Lipsitz said he wasn't surprised at all by the way Braun has stepped up and made big saves.
"Our plan for all of our players is to first get better every day, and she's been looking at a lot of film and seeing the things that she has been doing well, and the things that she's not doing well," Lipsitz said. "We go out on the field and work on it; it's just a part of the process."
Reacting positively to short-term failure is what Kentucky women's soccer is all about.
"We lost a game at the beginning of the year and we learned from it," Lipsitz said. "I'm not a believer in you have to lose to be motivated. I'm glad that we've continued to learn from the first game, and the difference is we're learning in victory rather than defeat now".
UK has done plenty of that since that season-opening 4-1 loss at Washington. The Wildcats have won five games in a row, the last four coming in shutout fashion with Braun in goal.
"I just wanted to come in and make a statement that it doesn't matter what age you are, you can be a factor in the game," Braun said.
UK will look to cap a successful run through nonconference play on Sunday at noon ET at home against Pepperdine. After that, it's on to conference play in the always challenging SEC. The Cats' goals through all of that are simple.
"We want to get better every day and we want to win every game and that never changes," Lipsitz said. "That's a part of the process of being in the culture of our team. We're going to be great teammates to one another, we're going to be a family and we're going to work incredibly hard to get better every day."
At Kentucky, that team mentality is fueled by an individually focused approach, counterintuitive as that may seem.
"We take pride in our girls in this program on the individual development of our players, and because of the players developing so much individually, the team gets better also," said Lipsitz.
UK's precocious goalkeeper is an important part of that process.
"Bigger things are coming for our team individually and collectively," Braun said. "It takes a lot of discipline and work ethic to play at this level and you have to do a lot of work on your own. You have to grind when there are days when you're tired, have a lot of homework or didn't get much sleep; you just have to press through. Every day I go in focused and try to get better and learn the aspects of the game and become a student of the game every day."