Everything went the Bulls’ way in the first 25 minutes Sunday, and it seemed as though USF was heading one step closer to another Big East title.
How quickly things changed.
After taking a commanding 2-0 lead against Notre Dame, the Irish stormed back and eliminated the No. 13 Bulls, who played a man down in the second half because of a red card, from the Big East tournament, winning on penalty kicks at Alumni Stadium in South Bend, Indiana.
Both teams were scoreless in overtime, and the schools traded the first four goals in penalty kicks. Notre Dame’s Jeb Brovsky, however, blasted a shot past USF junior goalkeeper Jeff Attinella, and Sebastien Thuriere struck the crossbar to give Notre Dame the victory.
The loss ended USF’s chances at an unprecedented second consecutive conference title.
“I told my players after the match that I was extremely proud of their effort,” said USF coach George Kiefer. “Even though we lost in penalty kicks, we earned a tie on the road against a tough Notre Dame team while playing a man behind for over half the match.”
USF (13-3-3, 7-3-3) got off to a great start, receiving a goal from midfielder Jorge Mora just two minutes into the match. Sebastian Thuriere then added his fifth goal of the season in the 22nd.
It was all downhill after that.
Midfielder Francisco Aristeguieta received two yellows in a span of five minutes at the end of the first half, and the referee showed the red card, leaving the Bulls short-handed.
“Our guys were flying at even strength, so it was very unfortunate to lose such a key player,” Kiefer said.
Just before halftime, senior forward Bright Dike scored his team-leading 10th goal of the season. The Bulls held on until the 82nd, when Notre Dame sophomore Aaron Maund powered in a goal for the equalizer.
With the loss, the Bulls, who defeated Marquette in the opening round of the tournament Thursday, wait to see who they face in the first round of the 2009 NCAA tournament. Last season, USF reached the Elite Eight, losing to Wake Forest.
“We try to work on our skills and improve throughout the season, but we are constantly preparing for our opponents,” Kiefer said. “Now, we have 10 days off and get a chance to get better at what South Florida does. We are all really looking forward to the break.”