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IRVINE, Calif. – It took a full 90 minutes to decide the Big West Tournament semifinal match between the UC Santa Barbara Gauchos women's soccer team and the UC Irvine Anteaters at Anteater Stadium on Thursday night, but it took just 20 seconds for freshman midfielder Hannah Wendelken to give the Gauchos a lead they never looked back from as they defeated the Anteaters 1-0 to advance to the Big West Tournament final on Sunday.
Both teams exchanged possession after the opening whistle before the Gauchos collected a turnover in their backline and launched a ball towards midfield, where Wendelken was waiting in the middle of the center circle.
Spotting a run from junior winger Katherine Sheehy to her left, the UCSB club soccer product Wendelken connected a pass to Sheehy who carried the ball inside and set up Wendelken with the ball 20 yards out from goal which she took expertly, launching a powerful shot into the top left corner of goal to give the Gauchos a dream start to their first Big West Tournament semifinal since 2015.
"[Wendelken] has impressed us throughout the year with her competitiveness. She started getting minutes earlier this season after a few injuries, and then she scored a goal against Cal Poly and she hit an absolute bomb tonight," said twentieth-year Head Coach Paul Stumpf of Wendelken's performance in the match.
The game evened out after the Gauchos' opener as each team had three shots apiece in the first half, but all the while UCSB looked the likelier team to score.
One such look for the Gauchos came in the 37th minute, when sophomore attacking midfielder Christine Maurer found herself in a one-on-one situation with Irvine goalkeeper Maddie Newsom at the endline near the right post, but Newsom made a fingertip save to deny the Gaucho attacker.
The Gauchos were lively on the counter attack throughout the night and their senior right back Mallory Hromatko was the engine that kept it running. In the 39th minute she gave the Anteater defenders another nervy moment as her cross from the right edge of the box intended for Maurer in the middle skipped across the goalmouth to the opposite side.
Irvine, having entered the match as the third seed in the Big West Tournament, came close to finding the equalizer in the 62nd and 63rd minutes with a pair of shots from range from midfielder McKenzie Madison and defender Jonnae Joseph, but junior goalkeeper Hanna DeWeese stood strong for the Gauchos once again, saving both shots.
Junior forward and leading Gaucho goalscorer Shaelan Murison came close to slamming the door shut on Irvine's comeback hopes on three occasions, her best chance coming in the 85th minute when Murison attempted to blast a long-distance effort when she saw Newsom well off her line as the Anteater goalkeeper was rushing back to her goal after taking a free kick in the Gaucho half.
Murison had a team-high seven shots for UCSB in the match.
Irvine earned a last-chance free kick with just 25 seconds to go less than a yard outside of the top of the Gaucho box, but forward Lili Andino found nothing but the UCSB wall 10 yards away, who promptly cleared the ball away and saw out the remaining time on the clock to book their place in the Big West Tournament final.
Stumpf remarked, "I think the team had to deal with a whole lot of set pieces that were dumped into the box and, with the shutout, they did very well in doing so."
With their victory, the Gauchos are in the Big West Tournament final for the first time since 2009, in which they won the second of back-to-back titles by defeating Cal Poly on penalty kicks.
"We're really overjoyed at the prospect of being one game away from winning the Big West Tournament. It's exactly where we want to be, and we feel very fortunate to be here," Stumpf said.
In a rematch of the 2008 Big West Tournament final, which UCSB won in a penalty kick shootout, the Gauchos will face Long Beach State on Sunday, Nov. 4 at 1:00 p.m. at Anteater Stadium. There will be a live stream available on BigWest.TV with Mike Martinez on play-by-play.