Table-topping Eagles reach Vegas Cup Quarterfinals

LAS VEGAS - The USA Women's Eagles Sevens pulled out a gutsy victory over Fiji, 14-7, Friday to top Pool B at HSBC USA Sevens.

Captain Alev Kelter scored her fourth try of the day and Naya Tapper dotted down for the match-winner late in the final game of pool play as Head Coach Richie Walker's squad secured the best seed possible at its home tournament. The Eagles will face the best third-place team out of pool play Saturday at 12:28 p.m. ET. The third round of the 2016-17 Series is being broadcast live to viewers in the United States live on The Rugby Channel.

A pool-opening loss to Ireland made things a bit more difficult for the Eagles than Walker and Co. may have wanted in the build-up week, but the response to win two pressured games shows the improvements the team's made throughout the early course of the season.

"We always say we want to start strong and build, right?" Kate Zackary said following the final match of the day. "But then we find ourselves in the same position as in Sydney. Unfortunately, [a first loss] might motivate us more to turn out the next two games and to give our best."

Fiji's plans of topping the pool were not set in stone with two wins, either, as point differential and the matchup with the Eagles offered an alternative course. The Pacific Island nation came out flying under its match-opening restart, only to concede a penalty in an aggressive breakdown. The Eagles' tap was less effective than it had been earlier in the day, but Ryan Carlyle beat the trap at the gain line to put her side into the attacking half.

A turnover led to a long run by Miriama Naiobasali from the Fijian's own half, with Tapper proving too fast for her opposite number. The Eagle closed the ball-carrier down before she could reach the five-meter line, and smartly won the ball in the tackle area as her teammates arrived in support. A penalty then allowed a clearance kick to touch.

A short pass from the lineout found Zackary with room to run, though it was a path directly through a host of defenders. It took three but the Eagle was eventually pushed into touch before she could offload the ball, and Fiji kept hold through phases to send Ana Maria Roqica over the line. The fourth-minute try ticked the scoreboard for the first time in the match, 7-0.

The Eagles kept the ball from the ensuing restart with a minute or so remaining on the clock, and Tapper saved a second try when she blocked off a defender from pouncing on a loose ball in the backfield. She grabbed the ball from the ground to take it from the U.S. 22 to midfield, after which she was tackled with support. The Eagles kept the ball moving as Fiji recovered, and Kelter put Joanne Fa'avesi into space at the attacking 22 before calling for the return offload to tie the game, 7-7, at the break.

Spending portions of the second half on the back foot, the Eagles allowed Fijian try-scoring opportunities with ill-disciplined play. Two penalties inside the 22 could have resulted in a card for the home team and were instead turnovers for Fiji from knocks along the try line. Several try-saving tackles preceded a scoring play started by Bulou Mataitoga, who is in her second Series tournament. The former American International College student-athlete held onto possession through a tough tackle and split two defenders a phase later to take the Eagles out of their own "red zone." Kelter then spun to find Nicole Heavirland, who drew an extra defender away from Tapper. The wing slowly brought the full back into range before burning the Fijian for the match-winning try.

There was still time to play, but the Eagles kicked the ball into touch at the first opportunity to bring an end to Day One. Though the U.S. finishes the first day of competition in the early afternoon, there is still a massive amount of recuperation and review that must go into preparations for Saturday's knockout rounds.

"The biggest part now is to go home and recover," Zackary said. "We have a long afternoon break, which is different than most tournaments. We have to stay focused and get off our feet."

Ireland's draw with Spain gave the team in green an extra competition point. With Pool C's England currently 2-0 and France on five points in Pool A, Ireland is most likely the Eagles' Cup Quarterfinal opponent. The Quarterfinal will be streamed live at 12:28 p.m. ET on The Rugby Channel from Sam Boyd Stadium.

Women's Eagles Sevens | v. Fiji
1. Samantha Pankey
2. Kelly Griffin
3. Kate Zackary
4. Nicole Heavirland
5. Ryan Carlyle
6. Alev Kelter (C)
7. Naya Tapper
8. Kelsi Stockert
9. Joanne Fa'avesi
10. Bulou Mataitoga
11. Kristen Thomas
12. Nicole Snyder

Fiji | v. USA
1. Merewai Cumu
2. Asinate Savu
3. Raijeli Daveua
4. Ana Maria Naimasi
5. Talica Vodo
6. Pricilla Sauvavi Siata
7. Rusila Nagasau
8. Lavenia Tinai
9. Ana Maria Roqica
10. Aloesi Nakoci
11. Miriama Naiobasali
12. Tima Ravisa

Women's Eagles Sevens | 14
Tries: Kelter, Tapper
Conversions: Heavirland (2)

Fiji | 7
Tries: Roqica
Conversions: Tinai

Women's Eagles Sevens | HSBC USA Sevens
v. Ireland - L 24-21
v. Spain - W 24-7
v. Fiji - W 14-7
Cup QF v. Ireland - Saturday, March 4 @ 12:28 p.m. ET