Dec. 12, 2014
CARY, N.C. — As the final seconds ticked off the scoreboard clock Friday night, blue-and-orange-clad fans chanted “U-V-A! U-V-A!” at WakeMed Soccer Park. Virginia’s Calle Brown, with one last goal kick to execute, took his time. At last, though, Brown blasted the ball across midfield to teammate Sam Hayward, who headed it to himself and then emphatically booted it out of bounds.
Time ran out on UMBC, and the Cavaliers’ celebration began in earnest.
“This is a big step for us,” said UVa coach George Gelnovatch, whose team fell in last year’s NCAA semifinals.
This NCAA men’s tournament began last month with 48 teams. Only two remain: No. 16 seed Virginia (13-6-3) and No. 2 seed UCLA (14-4-5). They’ll meet for the NCAA title Sunday at noon in a game ESPNU will televise.
The championship-game appearance will be the eighth for UVa, whose record in those matches is 6-1, with the lone loss to UCLA in 1997, Gelnovatch’s second season as head coach at his alma mater.
In the Cavaliers’ most recent appearance in the NCAA title game, they defeated Akron on penalty kicks in 2009 at WakeMed Soccer Park.
Given the defensive prowess of both Virginia and UMBC, few would have been surprised if their College Cup semifinal had ended with another penalty-kick shootout Friday night. But the Wahoos stunned the Retrievers with a goal in the fifth minute, and that proved decisive in a game that ended 1-0 before a crowd of 9,502.
Redshirt freshman midfielder Pablo Aguilar swiped the ball from a Retriever and then slipped a pass to junior forward Darius Madison, whose shot, though deflected, beat goalkeeper Billy Heavner to the inside of the far post.
“It was pass back to the center back, and I knew I was close enough to take it away from him,” Aguilar said. “He had a bad touch. I took it from him. I saw Darius wide open. I gave it to him, and Darius did great in finishing.”
The goal was the first allowed by the Retrievers (14-5-5) in their five NCAA tournament games, and that was enough for the Cavaliers.
“I think it changed the outlook tremendously,” Madison said of the early strike, only the fifth first-half goal for UVa all season. “I think it did wonders for us.”
For Madison, who missed Virginia’s first three games with an ankle injury he suffered in August, the goal was only his fourth of the season and his first since Oct. 4.
“It was a big load off my shoulders,” Madison said. “This season’s actually been pretty rough for me. Coming in I was really focused and really excited for the season, and spraining my ankle in the first preseason game, it was a shocker, and it hurt. But George is always telling me, just keep focusing and just keep working hard, and it’ll happen. It took a while, but it eventually happened.”
Of Madison, Gelnovatch said, “I thought it was his best game tonight, and so timely, and not just because of the goal. That’s not an easy job what he was doing, not just scoring the goal, but holding balls, and [with all] the ground he had to cover.”
As a sophomore, Madison scored six goals and made the All-ACC second team, and he was expected to emerge as an All-America candidate this fall. But the ankle injury set him back, and he’s rarely appeared in rhythm this season.
“But he picked the perfect time to have a great game, and I hope he’s got one more left in him,” Gelnovatch said.
In the 52nd minute, Madison nearly doubled the Cavaliers’ lead, but his header, off a brilliant cross by senior midfielder Ryan Zinkhan, went wide of the goal.
A goal there “would have iced the game,” said Gelnovatch, who also rued a couple of missed opportunities by the `Hoos in the first half. But Virginia’s back line — Sheldon Sullivan, older brother Kyler Sullivan, Matt Brown and Scott Thomsen — defended with fervor from start to finish, helping Calle Brown record his ninth shutout of the season.
“You can start with Calle, who’s been good all year but exceptional in the playoffs,” Gelnovatch said when asked about his team’s defense. “Our center backs have been great, our fullbacks have been great, but I think it’s a team mentality too, a team mentality of not conceding. We’re just very, very resolute.”
In the round of 16, on the road against top-seeded Notre Dame, Virginia went up 1-0 on a goal by sophomore midfielder Nicko Corriveau in the 82nd minute. The Fighting Irish launched an all-out assault in the final minutes, but UVa refused to crack. Its defense was unyielding Friday night too.
“In these situations the dials get cranked up and things get heated and more balls are coming in,” Gelnovatch said, “and we’ve been able to, against some pretty good teams, close games out.”
The Retrievers finished with nine corner kicks, to only two for UVa.
“We had opportunities,” UMBC forward Kay Banjo said. “We just didn’t put them away.”
Gelnovatch said: “The corners, a couple of them got a little hairy, especially in the first half. I think in the second half we dealt with them a little better. But the corners were coming as a result of the crosses, us trying to clear them.
“Statistically speaking, when you’ve got a team that’s committed to defending, like we were, and [the opponent is] crossing the ball all the time, I like our odds. That’s just the way it is. We did a very, very good job dealing with that.”
In the second semifinal Friday, UCLA edged No. 11 seed Providence 3-2 in the second overtime.
The first semifinal marked the return of Virginia midfielder Eric Bird, who earlier in the day had been named a second-team All-American. Bird, a senior from Virginia Beach, had not played since Nov. 23, when he injured his groin in the opening minute of UVa’s first game in the NCAA tourney, against UNC Wilmington at KlÃƒÂ¶ckner Stadium.
Bird, the Cavaliers’ captain and leading scorer, replaced Aguilar in the 79th minute Friday night.
“We knew he wouldn’t play much today,” Gelnovatch said. “I was thinking 20 to 25 minutes at the most. He hasn’t played in three weeks, and it was timely, winning 1-0, bringing a guy like him on the field to help us just shut it down. And the other piece going into Sunday, he’ll be fresh. I don’t think he’ll be able to play 90 minutes, but in a national championship game, I would imagine he’s going to play more than the 15 minutes he played here.
“Is he going to start the game? I don’t think so, but he’s a great guy to bring in off the bench.”
With Aguilar playing so well, Gelnovatch had no need to rush Bird back into action Friday night. Aguilar, projected to take Bird’s place in the lineup in 2015, has capitalized on this unexpected opportunity.
“Eric’s a great player,” Aguilar said. “It’s no easy task to replace him in the field. I really look up to him. I came to UVa knowing that he had my place and I had to replace him. Obviously coming into the [UNCW] game, when he got injured, I was a little bit nervous, but I had the confidence, the players gave me the confidence, the coaches gave me the confidence. I played a good game against [UNCW], and I think that helped me improve every time.”
The `Hoos have improved, too, during their postseason run, building confidence along the way. A chance to take the final step awaits them Sunday.
“I think we got our tactics right tonight and executed the game plan and put ourselves in a good situation to compete for a national championship,” Gelnovatch said.