Gauchos Drop 3-2 Decision to UC Irvine in Big West Semis

Axel Mendez (Photo by Tony Mastres)
Axel Mendez (Photo by Tony Mastres)

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. – Thanks in part to second half goals from forwards Cameron Iwasa and Dennis Martinez, UC Irvine emerged as 3-2 victors over No. 24 UC Santa Barbara in Wednesday's Big West Tournament Semifinal at Harder Stadium.

The see-saw affair saw three lead changes and two ties, with Martinez's 82nd minute marker serving as the final and game-winning goal.

The high-scoring contest was nothing new for the Gauchos (10-7-3) and Anteaters (14-5-2), as all four of their postseason matchups have featured at least five goals.

With an attendance of 1,936, UCSB ends its season with the highest total and average home attedance figures in the country. Should those averages hold up, the Gauchos will lead the NCAA in attendance for a ninth consecutive season.

"Unfortunately, the game was won and lost in the first twenty minutes today," said UCSB head coach Tim Vom Steeg. "We had a number of chances to put [UC Irvine] away in the first half. Then they pick up a goal off a corner at the end of the first half and it's 1-1 at halftime. UCI did a good job at capitalizing when we made mistakes, and that was the difference."

UC Santa Barbara was the first to get on the board on Wednesday, as sophomore midfielder Drew Murphy knocked home a penalty shot 54 seconds into the match to give the Gauchos their earliest goal of the season. UCI midfielder Gerardo Gonzalez was the guilty party on the play, handling a ball with his hands in the box to hand the spot kick to the Gauchos.

After the early tally, UCSB dominated in scoring chances for the next half hour, but was unable to get an insurance goal, which turned out to be pivotal.

Big West Offensive Player of the Year Nick DePuy had a 1-v-1 chance pushed aside by UCI keeper Michael Breslin in the sixth minute, while All-Conference Second Team selection Drew Murphy had a similar scoring opportunity stopped in the 26th minute. Off a 3-on-1 counterattack, sophomore midfielder Andy Perez's goal-bound strike was stopped by none other than Breslin's face.

The Anteaters got a goal back in the 38th minute, as Matt Tilley made a run from the edge of the penalty area to the six-yard box, making solid contact on a header off a Gor Kirakosyan corner kick for the equalizer. With zero goals in his career as of a week ago, Tilley has now provided headed-in goals in back-to-back postseason contests for the Anteaters.

Following the halftime break, it looked as if UC Irvine was going to carry over the momentum from the late first-half goal, as Iwasa capitalized on a Gauchos turnover to beat keeper Brandon Berke with a 16-yard left-footed shot to the far post in the 47th minute.

However, the Gauchos answered right back not even two minutes later. Dribbling his way into the box, Perez tried to round Breslin by moving inside, however the keeper was able to get a touch on the ball and send the UCSB attacker to the floor. The tackle attempt led to the ball coming straight to Axel Mendez just outside the box, and the Big West Freshman of the Year finished into the open net for the equalizing goal.

The two teams appeared headed for overtime when the Anteaters pounced on another Gauchos turnover, this time leading to Martinez's goal off a Gerardo pass.

Ultimately, the Gauchos ended up outshooting the Anteaters 14-8, including a 10-4 advantage in the first half. UCI had five corners to UCSB's four.

Elsewhere in the Big West, Cal St. Fullerton defeated UC Riverside 3-0 to advance to the Big West Championship on Saturday. The Titans will meet the Anteaters for the right to the title at 7 p.m.

Eliminated from the conference tourney, the Gauchos now put their fate into the hands of the NCAA Selection Committee, who will put together the 48-team field for the NCAA Tournament early next week.