Dec. 9, 2011
SCOREBOARD | BOX SCORE
HOOVER, Ala. --The Charlotte 49ers advanced to the NCAA National Championship for the first time in program history on Friday night. The Niners (16-4-4) advanced past two-seed Creighton (21-2-1) in penalty kicks, 4-1 after a scoreless match. Tyler Gibson, Isaac Caughran, Donnie Smith and Isaac Cowles all converted penalty kicks for the 49ers, and keeper Gavin Dawson came up with a big PK save to help the Niners advance.
"It was a tremendous game, and I'm so proud of my team and players," said head coach Jeremy Gunn. "It was such an unbelievable performance. We've been playing great soccer for a number of years. They've grown and matured. They've got a resolve and determination. We've scored more goals than any other team in the tournament."
This marks the second straight game that Charlotte has gone to PKs and advanced. The Niners slipped past three-seed UConn last Sunday, 4-2 on penalty kicks. On their road to the championship, Charlotte has also beaten Furman in the first round (3-1) and UAB in the second (3-1). Then, the Niners upset defending national champion Akron (1-0) at home in the third round to face UConn in the Elite Eight.
Creighton's head coach, Elmar Bolowich, had good things to say about Charlotte's performance against his team. "There's a reason Charlotte made it to the College Cup, and there's a reason why they're now advancing to the final as well," he noted.
The Creighton match was a nail biter from the opening minutes, with both teams fighting hard on every possession. Charlotte had two chances in the opening half, with sophomore Tyler Gibson getting the Niners' first look on goal in the 11th minute and senior captain and defender Charles Rodriguez booting the ball wide in the 40th minute. But it was the Bluejays who had the majority of opening half chances, and Creighton led the Niners, 7-2 in first half shots and 2-0 in corner kicks.
Midway through the second half, the Charlotte offense came on stronger as Creighton began to wear down. Led by junior Donnie Smith, the Niners had four solid shot opportunities in the final 13 minutes of regulation, pressuring the Bluejays' defense to perform. Smith was a true playmaker for his team, creating chances and livening up the Charlotte offense.
"The coaches and players encouraged me to take the defenders on," Smith said of his performance in the second half. "[The defender] stopped me a couple of times but as the game went on, I got more and more confident."
Evan James put a shot wide in the 77th minute. Giuseppe Gentile got his first try of the game in the 85th minute, but Creighton's Holt made an excellent save on the play. Moments later, Gibson and Anthony Perez had back-to-back shots blocked by the Bluejays' defense.
After such a promising second half, the Niners carried all the momentum into overtime. Charlotte led the Bluejays, 2-0 in overtime shots and 1-0 in corners. Smith nearly scored in the 99th minute, but keeper Brian Holt made an outstanding save that proved to send the game into penalty kicks.
Jennings Rex took the final overtime shot for Charlotte, a high attempt in the 102nd minute.
Charlotte substituted keeper Gavin Dawson for Klay Davis to face Creighton's PKs. The Niners went first, with Gibson converting his attempt. The Bluejays' Bruno Castro made his first kick as well. Isaac Caughran, who had subbed in just before the end of the second overtime, drilled his try to put the 49ers up, 2-1. Caughran came through big-time, making his first appearance in three games after suffering an injury in the UAB game. Creighton missed their next two attempts, with Dawson making a great stop on Kris Clark's kick, and Donnie Smith and Isaac Cowles converted Charlotte's third and fourth kicks, respectively, to send the Niners to the championship.
"Everybody looks at the last shooter and says, `wow, what a good PK,' but Gavin, our keeper, has stepped up twice now for us in PKs and made that stop to give us the cushion," said Cowles. "He came up to me and said, `No pressure, just have fun.'"
In the match, Creighton led 12-8 in shots, though Charlotte led 6-5 in the second half and overtime periods. The Bluejays also led 4-1 in corners. Gibson led the Niners' offense with two shots, while six different 49ers collected a shot apiece.
Davis had perhaps his best game of the season thus far, making four impressive stops between the posts for the Niners. Holt had three stops for the Bluejays.
Charlotte will play top-seeded North Carolina on Sunday at 4 p.m. EST. The match will be played at Regions Park in Hoover, Ala..