Jaida Thomas sends Tennessee soccer to first SEC Tournament title game since 2008

Cora Hall
Knoxville News Sentinel

In her second straight game with two goals, Jaida Thomas lifted Tennessee soccer to a thrilling 3-2 win over Ole Miss on Thursday night to send the Vols to their first SEC Championship game since 2008. 

No. 10 Tennessee (17-2) will face No. 5 Arkansas (16-3) in the final on Sunday (2 p.m. ET, SEC Network). It's the sixth straight SEC Tournament championship game appearance for the top-seeded Razorbacks, who are still looking for their first win. 

Second-seeded Tennessee and third-seeded Ole Miss (12-5-3) were fighting the wind in Orange Beach, Alabama, and it changed the momentum of the game from first to second half. UT was in control and pinning Ole Miss back in its half for most of the first half. 

The second half was more balanced, with Ole Miss gaining momentum that kept it in the game until the end. 

"Yeah, we want it," Thomas said of the team's determination. "Before each game, it's like give it your all. That's our motto: give it your all and so that's what we do, and have fun doing it."

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HISTORIC QUARTERFINAL WIN:Tennessee soccer wins first SEC Tournament game since 2016, outlasting Florida

Tennessee forward Jaida Thomas (2) and midfielder Jordan Fusco (11) celebrate after Thomas scored a goal in the NCAA women's soccer match between the Tennessee Lady Vols and Kentucky Wildcats in Knoxville, Tenn. on Thursday, October 28, 2021.

Thomas has six goals and has an assist in the last four games. She put Tennessee ahead 18 minutes in, following in a shot that turned into a scramble when Ole Miss couldn’t secure the ball. Thomas got a toe on it and pushed it past former Tennessee goalkeeper Ashley Orkus. 

Her second came off a free kick from Lawson Rennie in the 70th minute. The ball bounced through the box and Thomas found the ball at her feet six yards out, turned and placed it perfectly past Orkus. Tennessee’s third goal came off an own goal in the 86th minute, but it was forced from pressure from Thomas on the defender, who had a miscue with Orkus and touched it past her.

Thomas' journey has been anything but easy, having to recover from a second torn ACL during her senior year of high school. She had to open her recruitment back up, searching for a team that would believe in her ability to come back.  The sophomore from Texas found it at Tennessee with coach Brian Pensky.

"Brian was that person," Thomas said. "So really, just working my butt off to get back to where I am now and it kind of just all paid off at the end of the day and Tennessee was there supporting me the entire way."

UT outshot Ole Miss 19-11 and had 12 corner kicks to the Rebels’ four. Ole Miss didn’t have a shot in the last 20 minutes of the first half and only had five shots on goal all game. 

Tennessee is 11-0 in games when it leads at halftime. Thursday saw the Volunteers up 1-0 at half, but the second half was a battle for 45 minutes.

The 1-0 lead was short-lived. With the wind in Tennessee’s face, Ole Miss sent a ball toward Claire Rain and it took a bounce right into Rain’s hand. The outside back was just inches inside the penalty area and Ole Miss was awarded a penalty kick. Lindsey Romig guessed wrong, and Channing Foster sent the ball into the back of the net to tie the game at 1-1 just 16 seconds into the second half.

Ole Miss would score again off a corner kick for Saydie Holland’s first goal of the season to tie the game at 2-2 in the 76th minute.

"My last words to them were: I'm fortunate to be their coach," Pensky said. "They're such a resilient group, play a phenomenal first half, up 1-0 and  it is impossible to draw up a worse start to the second half and going into probably 12- to 15-plus mile an hour winds and then to get a second goal is a big deal. Then it gave up the tying goal, right, that's a gut punch. But our kids just keep getting up when they get punched."

Pensky called it poetic justice for Rain to be involved in the game-winning goal.

"She was devastated by the penalty, and she had tears in her eyes afterwards, just so relieved and thankful and happy," Pensky said. "Couldn't be happier for her and obviously Jaida Thomas is a dog, two goals plus, putting the pressure on that kid to force that own goal. But just the whole (team), so resilient, so tough."

Cora Hall covers University of Tennessee women's athletics. Email her at cora.hall@knoxnews.com and follow her on Twitter @corahalll.