Prior to this afternoon's match against MAC West-leading Ball State, UB's Women's Soccer team had only trailed for 77 minutes total the entire season, with all 77 coming in consecutive games in mid-September.
Today, Ball State became just the second team to open the scoring on Buffalo all season, and held on against a ferocious second-half attack from the Bulls to add nearly another half hour to that season-long total. But the second half is a little longer than thirty minutes, and UB got a goal from senior Katie Roberts with twenty minutes to play to force overtime before Roberts once again came through for her team.
Backing up, though, we should start at the beginning.
Or even before the beginning: Coming into today, the MAC's top teams were, in order, Buffalo, Miami, and Ball State. Each had three games remaining: contests against the other two and East Division bottom dweller Akron. Barring three losses to close the season, UB had wrapped up a MAC quarterfinal home game, and with a win could secure a top-two seed with a chance to clinch the #1 seed on Sunday against Miami.
UB came into today on a teensy bit of a hot streak: 6-0-2 in MAC play dating back to late September. Last weekend they rolled over Central Michigan and Toledo without difficulty en route to two shutouts. Meanwhile, Ball State had put together three consecutive shutouts of their own in a surge to a 5-3 MAC record good for top of the West.
The first half was as back and forth as any half the women have played all year: UB came out hot and controlled the first five minutes, but by the twelfth defender Sophie Therien had already broken up a handful of Ball State inroads to the back line of UB's defense.
Throughout the first stanza, Ball State was simultaneously dangerous and also unable to actually get a shot on target. In one sequence that happened much too quickly for comfort, freshman goalie Laura Dougall had to act like a basketball player to shield away a Cardinal while corralling the ball, only for Ball State to renew their pressure and force Jackie Hall to make a stellar clearance moments later just inside the box.
Meanwhile, UB's offense was time and time again just a hair off from connecting. A long header in the 19th minute forced the Cardinal keeper to range far to her left for a tough save, and Kassidy Kidd, before and after flipping sides with Julia Benati, was frequently able to get the ball in deep, but unable to connect with Celina Carrero or Katie Roberts. While Ball State was held to just two shots in the first half because of the excellent-as-usual play of UB's back line, Buffalo managed only two shots thanks to a number of missed passes or loose balls that found open space where there's usually a white jersey.
The first half as a whole was especially even, and I would be surprised if I were the only Bulls fan looking ahead to Buffalo's usual second-half dominance as the clock wound down. You had to feel a bit lucky for all the spectacular clearances from Therien, Hall, and Mann, who were truly the stars of the match, while simultaneously snakebitten from the just-out-of-sync plays on offense.
The luxury of second-half dominance, though, became necessity when disaster struck late in the first. Dougall appeared in position to safely reel in a bouncing long ball at the left corner of the box, but lost her concentration as a Cardinal forward approached with it, presumably wanting to avoid a repeat of the near-catastrophe in Lewiston.
In that moment, Dougall never touched the ball, crashed into the oncoming attacker, and was whistled for a foul. Ball State converted the penalty kick and became just the third team all season to enjoy a lead over UB. Bad news.
But UB found their customary halftime turbocharge, and came out of the break on an absolute tear. Celina Carrero, who was as spectacular in ballhandling as ever, created three glorious chances in the first three minutes. Eight minutes later, a short free kick from the left corner became a shot barely over the bar, and a Therien free kick to Jackie Hall met the same fate.
A number of promising long balls went for nothing, either due to being just a touch too strong for Carrero to run down, or being too close to Ball State's wickedly fast left back, who consistently outran Carrero and Alex Lambert, both speedsters in their own right, all night long.
Suddenly, all those just-missed passes and loose balls from the first half, and all those just-over-the-bar shots from the second came together for 15 seconds of perfect offense at the 70-minute mark. After Ball State got two clearances and looked to flip the field, Courtney Mann was able to pressure the ball carrier into sending it downfield, where Jackie Hall quickly met the ball and pushed it back up. Andrea Niper controlled it on the far sideline, heading it upfield before stepping around a defender to retrieve it, only to send a pinpoint pass down the sideline to Carrero, who did her thing in undressing her defender and sending an out-curling pass into the center of the field.
I don't know how much the ball missed the defender's foot by. I'd truthfully like to not think about it. But it did miss, and curled just enough to roll past the sliding defender to Katie Roberts, who beat the goalie to her right and put it in the lower right hand corner to tie the game. It was a tremendous beginning-to-end effort:
<iframe width="480" height="302" src="http://www.ustream.tv/embed/recorded/54432453/highlight/567203?v=3&wmode=direct" scrolling="no" frameborder="0" style="border: 0px none transparent;"> </iframe>
<br /><a href="http://www.ustream.tv" style="font-size: 12px; line-height: 20px; font-weight: normal; text-align: left;" target="_blank">Broadcast live streaming video on Ustream</a>
From that, UB very nearly finished things in regular time thanks to 15 minutes of dizzying pressure that was somehow more than the first 25 of the half, but needed stout defensive play in the last four minutes and a clutch clearance from Kassidy Kidd with 30 seconds to play to make it to overtime.
The extra period was a short affair in which UB picked up right where they left off. Not long after the opening touch, Julia Benati, Angel Hart, and Katie Roberts worked the ball down the left sideline effectively to what would appear to be one of Benati's patented curling rockets from the left side of the box. But Kidd stepped in front of the freshman and poked the ball to Celina Carrero in the corner, where a Cardinal defender cleared the ball for a UB throw in.
Ten seconds later, after the ball bounced off a Ball State arm in the box, Roberts stepped up the dot and poked the ball in the lower right corner to end it in the 93rd minute and completely erase Ball State's remaining chance at the top overall seed in the MAC. UB wins again and remains undefeated in MAC play.
Roberts' two goals today gave her a team-leading nine on the season and twenty in her career as a Bull. Her 70th-minute score was also her fifth game winner of the year. Despite the opening Cardinal goal, Buffalo's defense once again held their opponent to fewer than five shots on goal, and the team becomes the first UB team I can find record of to go undefeated in nine straight MAC competitions. UB will host their quarterfinal game in the MAC tournament, and is in the driver's seat for the top overall seed and the right to host the semifinals and finals with a first-round win.
I cannot say enough good things about the play of Therien, Hall, and Mann today. Ball State got few shots on goal but could have easily had several more goals. I think I need more than one hand to count the time that one of the three met the ball and a Cardinal at the top of the box and prevented a wide-open shot.
I could watch Celina Carrero do magic with the ball for ever and ever. She was mostly harmless in the first half, stifled by the extreme Ball State speed on the left that thwarted several Niper-to-Lambert passes later in the game, but found space in the second half. I truly do not think Carrero mishit the ball all night, somehow finding Benati time and time again no matter the angle or the position of the defender. It was a masterclass.
MAC Tournament Seeding Scenarios
Unfortunately, Miami also won tonight, in double overtime over the Akron Zips. Thanks for nothing, Akron.
Given that result, the Redhawks remain one point behind Buffalo. There are two ways Miami and Buffalo can finish the regular season tied in: at 26 points with a Miami win on Sunday and a Miami tie and Buffalo win on Thursday, and at 24 points with a tie on Sunday and then a Miami tie and UB loss on Thursday.
In the first case, Miami would take the top seed based on head to head record, and it's simple. In the second, it's much more complicated. I owe special thanks to Louie Spina of the UB Athletic Department for sending along the tiebreaker rules in the MAC, but the second breaker is "point accumulation against ranked teams," which I'm unwilling to try to calculate until there are fewer moving parts.
Assuming neither of those tie scenarios occur:
Buffalo earns the #1 seed if:
- Buffalo wins over Miami on Sunday OR
- Buffalo ties Miami and gets favorable Thursday result (UB W + MU W/L/T; UB T + MU L/T; UB L + MU L)
- Buffalo loses to Miami and gets favorable Thursday result (UB W + MU L)