Bulls fall short in penalty kicks, lose AAC Championship

The USF men’s soccer team watches from midfield as Tulsa wins the AAC Championship with its fourth made penalty kick. ORACLE PHOTO/JACKIE BENITEZ

USF goalkeeper Spasoje Stefanovic could only watch as the match-clinching kick bounced to his left through the goal and the Tulsa team took off toward the sideline in celebration at Corbett Soccer Stadium. 

With the score tied at one apiece through regulation and two overtime periods, the game was decided by penalty kicks in which the Golden Hurricane defeated USF 4-2 on Sunday to win the AAC Championship.

“I thought at times we really took the match to them and I was pleased with the performance,” coach George Kiefer said. “Give Tulsa credit, they made some changes to their formation at halftime. They went away from what they typically do, so give them credit. 

“But I thought it was a good final, it’s what you expect to see in a final. It could have went either way, I thought we had two or three looks late that if we tucked them in the far post, it might have been a different story.”

The Bulls, who won the regular season conference title with a 6-1 record in AAC play, will have a chance to continue their season if selected for the NCAA Tournament during the NCAA Selection Show at 1 p.m.

“It’s actually better in the big scheme of things because it goes down as a tie, and our RPI is good, so we expect to be at home on Thursday night in the NCAA (tournament),” Kiefer said. “After a PK loss, there is a little more emotion, so how do you get the guys back and lift them up? We’ll do a good job having them ready for Thursday.”

USF took a 1-0 lead in the 52nd minute when senior midfielder Marcus Epps worked his way through a pair of defenders to find senior forward Nazeem Bartman, who snuck the ball into the bottom left corner of the net. 

In what was a defensively dominated match, Tulsa’s lone goal of the afternoon would be all it would need to send the game into overtime and eventually penalty kicks. 

The score came in the 72nd minute on a long ball in which Stefanovic ran forward to collect the ball, but found himself out of position to make a stop as Tulsa forward Juan Sanchez poked the ball over his head to even the match. 

With overtime providing nothing but more missed opportunities, two key penalty kick saves from Tulsa goalkeeper and AAC Defensive Player of the tournament Jake McGuire gave the Golden Hurricane enough separation to hold off the Bulls.

Though the Bulls’ regular season ended Sunday, Kiefer said matches like these are what help prepare his team for the upcoming NCAA Tournament. 

“When you talk about the team being 0-3-2 five games into the year and winning the league with a game in hand, getting the tournament here, playing in the final, it’s excellent,” Kiefer said. “And now we prepare for the next journey, which is the NCAA Tournament. 

“That’s really what everything is for leading up to it. This right now might hurt, but it’s a gift that we went through it and it’s almost a dry run, so we look forward to the tournament.”