SANTA BARBARA, Calif. – Sophomore forward Chris Bernardi provided the third-seeded Cal Poly men's soccer team a first-half lead during Wednesday's Big West Conference Tournament semifinal showdown at Harder Stadium, but a strike by UC Santa Barbara freshman forward David Opoku leveled the scoreline 18 minutes from time before a 98th-minute goal by sophomore midfielder Nic Ryan propelled the second-seeded Gauchos a 2-1 victory.
Junior goalkeeper Patrick McLain added seven saves for Cal Poly (8-7-3), which was eliminated at the semifinal hurdle of the Big West Tournament for the third-successive season. Wednesday's loss also extended Cal Poly's winless streak at Harder Stadium to 12-straight years and 13-consecutive matches.
The Mustangs must now wait until Monday's NCAA Tournament selection show to see if they will be an at-large inclusion into the 48-team field. The selection show airs live on ESPNU at 1:30 p.m. PT. Aiding Cal Poly's at-large cause is a schedule that ranked as the 15th most difficult in the nation and a string of victories that included triumphs against nationally-ranked Indiana (1-0, Sept. 10) and UC Santa Barbara (2-1, Oct. 27) and scoreless draws versus nationally-ranked UCLA (Sept. 17) and UC Irvine (Oct. 16).
With the victory, UC Santa Barbara (12-4-3) advanced to face fourth-seeded Cal State Fullerton (7-11-2) in Saturday's Big West Tournament championship match. Kickoff at Harder Stadium is set for 7 p.m. The Titans advanced to the final by dealing top-seeded and No. 10 UC Irvine (14-3-3) a stunning 2-1 upset earlier Wednesday.
Opoku had two shot attempts stopped inside the opening six minutes and sophomore forward Sam Garza fired his attempt over the Mustangs crossbar in the seventh, but it was Cal Poly that finished the opening half with the better scoring opportunities.
In the 15th minute, sophomore forward Chris Gaschen received a feed from senior forward David Zamora and cut through a field of Gaucho defenders at the edge of the penalty area before having his progress halted. Seven minutes later, junior midfielder Jake Hustedt ripped a shot from 20 yards that was parried down by Gaucho senior goalkeeper Sam Hayden. Burgos sailed a free kick over the UC Santa Barbara crossbar in the 27th, but it was Cal Poly's dead-ball specialist that kickstarted the sequence that led to the game's opening goal.
After Bernardi (above) won a corner by pounding a cross off of a Gaucho defender's chest, Burgos stepped toward the flag and fired a line drive that junior midfielder Cameron Walters headed toward goal. Walters' attempt was blocked, but the rebound fell to Bernardi, who ended a 14-match goal drought by ramming a shot into the back of the Gaucho net near the left post. The goal was Bernardi's first since an 83rd-minute game-winning strike during a 1-0 victory against then-No. 18 Indiana on Sept. 10.
UC Santa Barbara's best chance to equalize before the break came during the 44th, as junior midfielder Luis Silva whipped an attempt at goal from the left side of the penalty area. McLain, however, registered one of his six first-half saves by pouncing to the right and stabbing the ball with an outstretched glove. Junior midfielder Gaby Okito saw his shot blocked during the ensuing sequence before McLain stopped a driving attempt by Garza 36 seconds before the half.
The Mustangs forced Hayden into one second-half save as a 57th-minute attempt by Walters was turned away. UC Santa Barbara, which outshot Cal Poly during the second half, 7-2, steadily began solidifying its scoring opportunities.
In the 66th, Garza was played in toward goal before poking his attempt wide of the right post. Four minutes later, Garza skirted a shot over the Mustang crossbar from outside the penalty area.
Garza eventually turned to playmaker in helping to deliver UC Santa Barbara's opening goal. After receiving a pass from Garza, substitute midfielder Michael Tettah found Opoku, who beat two Mustang defenders and McLain to level the scoreline.
Opoku nearly provided the Gauchos the lead two minutes later, but his flicked attempt bounced just right of the Mustang goalmouth.
Cal Poly registered just one more scoring opportunity, but Hayden stopped sophomore midfielder Ben Fisk's attempt in the 95th. Less than two minutes later, Ryan ended the sixth overtime match between Cal Poly and UC Santa Barbara during the previous eight meetings by slipping around his defender and depositing a shot into an exposed Mustang goal.