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Conference champs


One week ago, the USF men’s soccer team wasn’t sure of its fate in the NCAA tournament.

After the end of the second scoreless overtime against No. 11 UConn in the inaugural American Athletic Conference (AAC) Tournament, the Bulls knew a shootout could award either team a victory.

Once senior goalkeeper Brentton Muhammad blocked the final shot from UConn freshman defender Kwame Awuah, the Bulls finally earned a sense of closure — their AAC Championship win automatically punched their ticket into the NCAA tournament.

“I think it adds a little something to it that it’s the first ever (AAC Championship),” coach George Kiefer said. “But I’m really proud of the players doing what they did this weekend.”

Going into the weekend, USF (8-3-9) was placed as the fifth seed in the tournament and faced the No. 8 seeded Rutgers in the AAC semifinals. Both teams came off momentum earning wins, as USF beat No. 4-seeded Temple in regulation and Rutgers upset the No. 1-seeded Louisville.

Postseason play by the Bulls included games opening with shots and first half goals, marking an aggressive stampede at the championship trophy. This type of gameplay differed from their focus of closing out games.

After a 2-1 overtime victory against Rutgers in the conference semifinals, the Bulls saw their first return to the finals in five years against UConn (11-2-5).

The Huskies opened the match with a barrage of shots that kept the Bulls defense on its heels. Half of Muhammad’s 10 saves came in the first half, when the Bulls offense wasn’t able to respond with a shot on goal.

Senior forward Stiven Salinas, who scored two straight game-winning goals before the championship round, had the closest chance at earning his final goal as a Bull with one minute left. His shot was blocked by a UConn defender.

Even though USF had nine games go into overtime, not one this season relied on the fate of a penalty kick shootout.

“I knew that they were going to score some,” Muhammad said. “So I just needed to try and get on the end of a few penalties to give us a chance.”

With USF making all four of their PKs and Muhammad having fingertips on UConn’s second attempt, redshirt junior Edwin Moalosi had the chance to win the game but UConn’s Andre Blake recorded a save for more rounds of PKs.

“I just trusted my technique and the advice the coaches have given me,” Muhammad said. “And also our players that were taking penalties.”

After two straight saves by both keepers, freshman midfielder Duane Muckette’s goal set up the fate of a championship resting on Muhammad’s block.

The senior goalkeeper stared down Awuah, who fired his shot toward Muhammad’s left. With the ball in the air, Muhammad leaped toward it and had enough reach to save the ball.

USF won the shootout 6-5.

“It wasn’t just three saves in a row,” Kiefer said. “It was three in a row where he had to make the save or we were cooked and we were done.”

Players and coaches are left without the question of potentially seeing their streak of NCAA tournament bids ending, they will see their seventh straight year of action during the first round of the NCAA tournament on Thursday.