LEXINGTON, Ky. — When forward Sebastian Elney snuck a shot under the arm of Kentucky goalkeeper Enrique Facusse, he sprinted behind the net in front of the Wildcats’ student section with outstretched arms as his teammates chased behind.
The crowd of 3,228 fell primarily silent, a hush not common at the Wendell & Vickie Bell Soccer Complex in 2018. The No. 3-seed Wildcats were facing their first deficit of the season at home.
For the third consecutive game, No. 11 Maryland scored the first goal of the game to take a 1-0 edge 29 minutes into the NCAA quarterfinals. The Terps and their small contingent of fans were the only ones celebrating the opening strike — Elney’s fourth of the season.
Unlike their previous two wins in the tournament, the Terps didn’t find a game-cementing second goal, but its defense held on for a third straight shutout to advance to the program’s first College Cup berth since 2013 after an 0-2-2 start to the campaign.
“For our program, this is a big moment,” coach Sasho Cirovski said. “We struggled the last couple of years in the early rounds of the NCAA tournament. We challenged this team to reset the culture and the identity and bring back the Maryland quality. This team has done that.”
Maryland knew it could tame the Wildcats. Though their host was ranked top-five in the country offensively and defensively, the Terps had scored in nine consecutive games and hadn’t conceded in the tournament yet.
Midway through the first half, however, Maryland hadn’t registered a shot on goal. Similar to their third-round win against Duke, the Terps began to absorb pressure from Kentucky’s potent offense.
But then, the Terps’ attack achieved a feat only twice accomplished against the Wildcats in Lexington this year.
Junior forward Paul Bin received a clearance and cleverly laid it off behind him to midfielder Amar Sejdic, who had space to run forward. As defenders closed in on the senior, he found Elney streaking down the wing.
Sejdic, who said earlier this week he sought revenge for the Elite Eight loss in 2015 that he earned a red card in, got off the pass that extended his and the eventual goalscorer’s college careers at least one more game.
Elney fired a shot on the ground, and while it was directly at the center of the goal, it narrowly avoided Facusse and hit the back of the net. The Wildcats goalkeeper, who leads the nation with 14 shutouts on the season, wouldn’t be securing another.
“We do it all the time in practice. I knew exactly where to go when he got the ball,” Elney said. “I just took my touch and let it go far post and it went in, and we celebrated like we won the championship.”
The moment the lead was secured, goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair knew it was enough. Scoring on him— which hadn’t been done on him in 229 minutes entering Friday — would be an arduous task.
Kentucky was just as sure it would equalize. Despite the elation from the Terps, and the odd feeling of trailing, there were over 60 minutes left on the clock, and it hadn’t been shutout at home this season.
“It’s not the easiest to go down 1-0 in the first half at home,” Kentucky defender Tanner Hummel said. “But we knew we still had a full second half to get back into it.”
The Wildcats, who entered 12-0 at home and with only one loss all season, fought tirelessly for an equalizer that never came, despite golden chances.
Terps midfielder Andrew Samuels nearly scored an own goal with 12 minutes left, but St. Clair made a one-handed reflex save to thwart one of the final equalizing opportunities.
Cirovski said prior to the game a win would require a goal and a big-time save, and after finding that goal early on, that save finally came late.
“I was shuffling across to get the ball because I didn’t think Andrew would get there,” St. Clair said. “The last moment he just got his toe in and unfortunately went toward the goal. I tried to react and thankfully blocked it.”
When St. Clair fell on a rolling ball with 10 seconds remaining, defender Donovan Pines stood in front of him, roaring, “Let’s go! Let’s go!”
When the final whistle blew, their teammates ran off the sideline to greet them, having returned coach Cirovski’s program to the final four for the first time in their careers. Three years earlier, the Terps felt the pain of a loss in the same round, and after two disappointing years with no tournament wins, they found redemption.
“Pure ecstacy. It’s just great joy,” Elney said. “The last 10 seconds, knowing we’re right there and we’re headed to [California] is a feeling like no other — never felt it before.”