LEXINGTON, Ky. — As goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair smothered the ball one last time, defender Donovan Pines shielded Kentucky’s star forward JJ Williams from getting any closer.
St. Clair cemented the upset win over the No. 3-seeded Wildcats. The public address announcer at the Wendell & Vickie Bell Soccer Complex began to count down the final 10 seconds of the game until Maryland secured its first College Cup berth in five years.
Pines then left Williams alone for the first time all night. His attention diverted away from the Conference USA player of the year and onto the mob quickly forming to celebrate the Terps’ 1-0 road win in the Elite Eight.
Williams walked through the Terps’ box as the final whistle blew, staring down on the field that he and his teammates hadn’t lost or been held scoreless on until facing No. 11-seed Maryland on Friday night with a trip to the national semifinal at stake.
“It’s a battle I was looking forward to all week,” Williams said. “I’ve been looking for somebody who’s going to push me, who’s going to make me work the extra two yards for it, who’s going to track me the entire game.”
The nation’s third-leading goal scorer found all that and more in Pines.
With the 6-foot-5 defender following his every movement, the leader of Kentucky’s offense couldn’t manage to put any of his three shots on target. A late header sailed high, another one veered right and Pines blocked the only chance Williams took with his foot.
“Donovan is really emerging as the best center back in the country,” Terps coach Sasho Cirovski said. “I’m not sure any forwards want to match up against him.”
But Williams did. As a MAC Hermann Trophy semifinalist, awarded to the best player in college soccer, he wanted to showcase his talents against Pines. He met his match, and his performance didn’t yield a shot until the 62nd minute.
Midway through the second half, the frustration reached a peak.
Williams won the ball at midfield after Maryland defender Ben Di Rosa slipped. Pines stepped forward, looking to outwork the forward once more. Williams’ strength, however, finally got him past Pines and gave him room to dribble.
He tried to slip a pass ahead to forward Jason Reyes, but defender Johannes Bergmann deflected it toward the sidelines. Bergmann chased the ball and when he tried to clear it away, Williams pushed him to the ground from behind. It earned him a yellow card — one he received before taking his first shot.
“Our guys just competed on every play,” Cirovski said. “When you play at that kind of level, it can frustrate any team.”
Maryland has now faced three of the top-nine goalscorers in the country — Williams, Denver’s Andre Shinyashiki and Rutgers’ Jordan Hall. The Terps didn’t concede a goal to any of the three, holding them to four shots on goal.
Kentucky coach Johan Cedergren, who has watched Williams carry his team with 18 goals, said Pines defended him better than any other player has this season. But he felt Pines’ focus on Williams had opened up opportunities for the rest of his offense.
Williams’ teammates hardly found any more success, though, trying to break down a Maryland defense that hasn’t conceded a goal in all 270 minutes of the NCAA tournament.
Midfielder Marcel Meinzer had the only shot on goal off a Kentucky player’s foot in the 19th minute. St. Clair made a reaction save with 12 minutes remaining to stop a near-own goal as the Terps clung to their one-goal lead.
Maryland needed to hold on for 61 minutes after forward Sebastian Elney scored in the first half. That’s exactly what the Terps did, handing the Wildcats their first loss since Oct. 7 and their first loss at home all season.
And despite his best efforts, there was nothing Williams could do to prevent it.
“We knew that if we kept a clean sheet like we have done the last couple of games, then we would have a good chance of coming out with the win,” St. Clair said. “As soon as we saw Sebastian’s goal, the backline just looked at each other and said this is our time to shine.”