I posted this and revised this twice before noticing I never wrote an intro! Anyway, the UB Women's Soccer team are MAC Champions after one of their best games of the year: a 1-0 victory over Western Michigan, sealed in the 81st minute when Sophie Therien found Jackie Hall on a free kick to put the Bulls up.
The Broncos in the first half gave UB all they could handle, while showing their own powerful defense - one that held Northern Illinois to zero shots on goal in their MAC semifinal Friday evening. While Western had just a single shot on goal and few truly dangerous chances until the dying seconds of the half, they controlled possession for long stretches and consistently pushed UB off the ball.
That was the key to the first half: WMU was by far the most physical team Buffalo has played in a while. I didn't see the Virginia Tech game, so I can't speak to that, but I have to go back to Niagara to think of a game that even approaches this.
That's not to speak poorly of the Broncos - most of their challenges were certainly legal - but WMU enjoyed a majority of the calls during the frame, including a few headscratchers, most notably an apparent handball in the box that went uncalled, supposedly due to a prior offside call that no one in my section saw.
UB did get their chances, but struggled with the size and excellent ball control of Western. After an early period of pressure, including an earlier uncalled handball, the Bulls got a few opportunities, but most were, in the case of Celina Carrero, pushed off the ball, sent wide or passed back and totally neutralized as the team was patient around WMU's defense.
Coach Burke went to his subs earlier than usual, bringing in Alex Lambert, Dana Lytle, and Andrea Niper to find some speed, and Buffalo was able to generate some pressure when they had quality touches in the midfield. The only real danger in UB's end of the first was a through ball in the dying seconds that forced Dougall to come way out for a sliding challenge. At the half you got the feeling that UB wasn't going to be able to grind out a half dozen quality chances after the second, as they had so many times this season.
Happily, that was wrong. UB didn't completely overrun the Broncos in the second half, as they had countless other MAC teams this season, but they were by far the better team in the stanza, solving the opposing backline and controlling possession in the midfield. The questionable calls were still around, though less frequent, with UB owning the ball more.
And most importantly, the Bulls got chances after just two shots on goal in the first, even though Western was able to limit those chances by keeping a high defender up that prevented UB from switching fields. Suddenly, though, UB solved the Broncos. Carrero broke through into the middle but couldn't get a pass to Katie Roberts, and seconds later Julia Benati set up her patented curling kick from the left side of the box just to push it barely over.
In the next few minutes, Buffalo got incredible chances rapid-fire as Benati was questionably called offside, Carrero got a shot on target, and Kassidy Kidd put a dangerous cross into the box. WMU was able to counterpunch, but without much teeth, and the lopsided fouls returned.
At 80 minutes UB finally got a call: A great ball wide to Kristin Markiewicz ended with the junior on the ground and the WMU challenger carded for a yellow.
I said above that this was the most physical game I'd seen since Niagara. In that one the game-winner came on a Sophie Therien free kick to Jackie Hall. Today, from maybe seven yards closer, the two seniors did it again to give the Bulls an exhilarating 1-0 lead with just nine minutes to go. It was Hall's fourth of the season - all coming on set pieces.
Western's best chances of the game would come in the final five minutes, but not before Carrero, Benati, and Roberts were all able to get more shots on Broncos goalie Stephanie Heber. It really is a shame that Carrero and Benati didn't score in the MAC tournament, because they, along with Kassidy Kidd, were the drivers of UB's offense, consistently creating chances. Laura Dougall came up big in the final minutes, snagging a big corner with 2:30 to play, and pushing a shot wide and well off the field as time expired.
In the MAC era, UB has just three conference champions: Women's Tennis and Football in 2008, and Men's Swimming and Diving in 2011. Today, it's four. Megan Giesen, Jackie Hall, Courtney Mann, and Andrea Niper, all lockdown players in the middle, were named to the All-Tournament team.
UB's next game is in doubt, but we'll know
tonight tomorrow at 4:30 PM. First-round games take place on campus sites are this Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. It is no exaggeration to say that the ladies are six wins from a national championship. After two and a half weeks of do-or-die games for the #1 seed and the tournament title, everything now is gravy.
As the team waited for the awards presentation, they joined in a group song of 'Lean on Me' as the crowd fell silent to listen. Regardless of NCAA results, that will be my favorite memory of this team.
Congrats ladies, and Coaches Burke, Derkacz, and Brandao on an incredible season, one of the finest in any sport in 115 years of school history. Go Bulls