Hannah Cardenas briefly went down in pain, and in that instant the Colorado women's soccer team froze.
It wasn't much, but that moment of hesitation was all it took for 20th-ranked Cal to take advantage, as the Golden Bears produced the game's only tally while the Buffaloes were briefly distracted, escaping Prentup Field with a 1-0 decision Thursday in a Pac-12 Conference showdown.
Cardenas, a freshman defender, did not have to leave the match, but head coach Danny Sanchez was disappointed his club didn't maintain focus throughout the decisive play, despite their concern for their teammate.
"We have to keep playing," Sanchez said. "Everyone kind of paused and slowed down and stopped. You can't do it. You have to be mentally tough in the game the whole time. That was a little disappointing that we turned off. It cost you an opportunity to maybe get something out of this game."
Cal's tally occurred in the 37th minute as Kayla Fong directed a centering pass from the left wing — not far from where Cardenas was momentarily derailed — across the penalty box to freshman Kailee Gifford, who beat CU goalie Jalen Tompkins for the first goal of her collegiate career.
The 1-0 halftime deficit capped a disappointing first half for the Buffs, who managed just one shot on goal before the break. CU found its energy in the second half, producing five shots on goal over the final 45 minutes, but the Buffs were unable to solve Cal goalkeeper Emily Boyd.
CU midfielder Taylor Kornieck nearly converted a goal off a rebound of her own free kick from just outside the penalty box in the 58th minute, and a header chance from Cardenas was deflected over the net by Boyd in the 73rd minute. Otherwise chances were scarce for the Buffs against a Cal team that has surrendered just six goals all season.
"I personally don't think it was anything they did. We just didn't come out strong enough," Kornieck said. "If we would've played the first half like we played the second half I think we would've created a lot more chances than we did. I think it's more about us just needing to connect passes in that attacking third and getting more players up the field."
All three losses suffered by the Buffs this season have occurred against their only three opponents ranked in this week's top 25 poll — Cal, No. 1 UCLA, and Texas, which was unranked when it defeated CU a month ago but has made a swift ascension to No. 7. The Buffs were outscored 6-0 in those matches, which also accounts for six of the seven goals CU has allowed all season. Certainly struggling against marquee opponents isn't an embarrassment, yet it's a trend the Buffs would like to reverse before hosting No. 2 Stanford on Sunday followed by a trip to visit No. 6 USC, the defending national champion.
"It's not going to get any easier," Sanchez said. "When you look at Stanford, not only are they not giving up any goals, but they're leading the country in scoring by a wide margin. And they're playing good teams. It's going to be a huge challenge for us on Sunday. But, like I told the team tonight, hopefully they have a nice, hard game with Utah (Thursday) night, they have to travel here for their fourth, fifth day at altitude.
"If we'd have played both halves (against Cal) like we did in the second half, I'd say it is what it is. I was disappointing that we dug ourselves a little bit of a hole and it's tough to get out of."
No. 20 Cal 1, Colorado 0
At Prentup FieldCal (9-2-1, 2-1-1) 1 0 — 0
Colorado (7-3-3, 1-2-1) 0 0 — 0
Goals (assists) — Cal: Gifford (Fong), 37th minute.
Goalies (Min-Goals allowed-Saves) — Cal: Boyd (90--0-5); CU: Tompkins (90-1-4).