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Men's Soccer: Late goal lifts UCI past Tar Heels

UC Irvine men's soccer coach George Kuntz called it a leak in the dam.

Anteaters senior forward Christopher Santana thanked God for the opportunity.

And UCI senior defender Tarek Norad said though definitely not a miracle, that Santana's dramatic game-winning goal in the NCAA second-round playoff game against visiting North Carolina on Sunday created an amazing feeling that he and his teammates had simply earned.

By whatever description, the difference in the 1-0 triumph, the second NCAA Tournament win in four postseason trips for the Anteaters, was as dramatic as they come.

Santana's finish — a low blast from the top of the 18-yard box that whistled inside the left goal post on a carom that followed Michael Sperber's service into the Tar Heels' zone — came with two seconds left in regulation.

The victory gave No. 12-seeded UCI (15-4-3) a berth in the quarterfinals, in which it will visit No. 5-seeded Maryland (14-3-5) on Sunday. Maryland earned its eighth straight win Sunday by topping second-round foe Providence, 3-1.

Its second NCAA tournament win and its second trip to the round of 16 (2008 marked both firsts), extended UCI's winning streak to eight games and upped its unbeaten streak to nine contests. It also validated what has been a cosmic turnaround from a dismal 2012 season in which the Anteaters lost 10 one-goal games, including five in overtime contests. In those losses, the average game-winning goal came in the 91st minute (teams play 90-minute regulation games). It was as if UCI's 2012 team had been relegated to experience late-game agony by the soccer gods.

"It's a dagger," Kuntz said of Sunday's goal, which, like any late game-winner inspires a gamut of emotions. "Your heart drops all the way to your feet when that happens. Last year, everyone had some against us. But we've turned that around. I had my heart at my feet last year. This year, I wear my heart here [pointing to his chest]."

UCI barely avoided overtime, in which it is 0-1-3 this season, by scoring its 12th goal of the campaign in the final 15 minutes of a second half. The most it has scored in any other 15-minute increment is five.

The 'Eaters, who earned a first-round bye and a second-round home date by winning the Big West Conference South Division and conference tournament championships, also posted their 10th shutout. The 'Eaters' third straight clean sheet extended the scoreless streak of goalie Michael Breslin and his four-man back line of Morad, Marco Franco, Bryan Breslin and Thomas Janjigian, to 348 minutes.

"It's kind of all working out for us and we've earned it," said Morad, whose defense helped limit the Tar Heels (with 30 NCAA tournament wins in their 21 trips, including national championships in 2011 and 2008), to three shots. "We all have the mentality that nothing is given to us and we have to earn it. To win against a team like North Carolina on our field, in possibly our last home game, is pretty special."

UCI is now 13-0-2 this year when it scores in the second half, an occurrence not many could foresee in a defensive struggle that produced just three shots on goal (all by UCI).

"It was a good soccer game, a good tactical game between two defensive-minded teams," Kuntz said. "[Having watched UNC on tape] I knew how many guys they get behind the ball and I knew it would be hard to break them down. It was going to take a goal like that, but the timing of the goal is what did it."

UNC Coach Carlos Somoano said his team never regained its legs after its first-round win on Thursday, and Kuntz agreed that facing a tired group of Tar Heels offered a strategic advantage.

"We knew we just had to keep them running," Kuntz said of a unit Somoano called not sharp, not explosive and awkward with the ball. "We knew if we could get to overtime or get late in the game, we had a really good chance, because that's when [fatigue] starts to kick in, even if your fit. It's just mentally very tough to stay in it. It was a defensive battle and one little leak in the dam was going to open it up."

Santana, a first-team all-conference performer who has six goals this season to rank third on the team, said he was happy to get another chance after misfiring on his first three shots. His first attempt rocketed into the side of the net in the eighth minute and he faced a similar shot to his game-winner late in regulation, but failed to convert.

"I talked with my coaches at halftime and they told me to stay focused," Santana said. "I got the opportunity again and, thank God, I buried that one."

Senior Enrique Cardenas nearly broke the scoring drought in the 59th minute, when he bent a free kick toward the upper middle of the net. But UNC goalkeeper Brendan Moore (two saves) caught the ball above his head, then temporarily lost possession before pouncing on it behind him just before it crossed the goal line.

The win should enhance UCI's growing national reputation, said Kuntz, in his 19th season at the UCI helm.

"It's the fist time we've played an ACC team and I told my team that this was their chance to kind of shift power," Kuntz said. "We know the West has been strong and it was great to see how many teams from the West got into the tournament this year. This win is great for the Big West and great for the school."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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