GERMANTOWN, MD - It was far from easy for either side but the No. 2 Maryland Terrapins (16-1-2) and No. 3 North Carolina Tarheels (15-2-2) proved they were the hungriest teams in the tournament as the heavy favorites each pulled out dramatic wins Friday night in the ACC Championship Semifinals.
In the night cap following the Tar Heels’ PK shootout win over Virginia, the Terrapins secured the most anticipated re-match of the college soccer season to this point by beating Clemson 2-1 in comeback fashion.
Maryland scored the equalizing goal in the 84th minute on a strike from ACC Offensive Player of the Year Patrick Mullins, and then found a double overtime golden goal on a Helge Leikvang corner kick which deflected off the body of a Clemson player and into the net, sending the Terps to their fourth ACC Championship Final in six years.
“They’re an outstanding team, they’re well-coached, well-disciplined and a very talented team,” Clemson head coach Mike Noonan said of the Terrapins.
Although it was trademark Terrapins dramatics late in the game, Clemson left its mark early and spent the rest of regulation trying to hang on. The Tigers struck first on a header by Ara Amirkhanian from a cross off the foot of Manolo Sanchez in the 24th minute and his team would end up with a solid 12 shots for the match.
As the second half wore on and things began to get tense for the Terps, the Tigers were busy grappling with the game clock, trying to take as much time off as possible. Mike Noonan’s scrappy team kept most of the match in the midfield and as both coaches agreed were the better side for most of the night.
“That was arguably our worst first half in a high quality game all year,” said Maryland coach Sasho Cirovski. “Our preparation was exquisite so I’m still not sure why we came out with anxiety and a lack of quality.”
“However, I believe in this team,” the 20th year head coach continued.
Cirovski’s players wouldn’t let down on his beliefs and found a way to rally past the upset-seeking Tigers.
In the 79th minute, Clemson goalkeeper Cody Mizell made what appeared to be a game-clinching fingertip save on perhaps the best look of the night for Maryland on a blast from five yards beyond the box from Leikvang. The junior midfielder from Norway had taken just eight shots all season long but played what Cirovski called one of his best performances of the season, a testament to the amount of depth the Terps have displayed all year.
“Helge was a starter all of last year and this year hasn’t gotten the minutes but today we needed him to fill a void in the back and he was fantastic,” said Cirovski, who was recently named ACC Coach of the Year for a third time. “We had to use our depth today, Clemson is a very physical and direct team and they had strong belief against us.”
As time in the second half wound down quickly, the Terps made a tactical decision to use three forwards and go down a defender. The risky decision would pay off.
With under 10 minutes left in regulation, Cirovski elected to take out freshman defender Mikey Ambrose, an All ACC Second Team and ACC All Freshman honoree, who was one of the Terps’ most steady players all season long for freshman forward Christiano Francois in an effort to make something happen. Then, just when it seemed Clemson was only a couple empty Maryland possessions away from keeping its conference championship hopes alive, Francois made a finish-ready pass to Mullins who equalized for the top-seeded Terps.
From there, it was an own goal vaulting Maryland into the ACC final earning a re-match of the No. 1 vs. No. 2 in College Park just a few weeks ago. Maryland met UNC on Oct. 19 in a match which featured the Terps pulling out a double overtime win over the Tar Heels on a goal by freshman Schillo Tshuma.
The sides will meet again Sunday at noon at the Maryland SoccerPlex, this time with all the chips on the table and a conference title on the line.
“It’s the sexy one for Sunday, it’s the one that everybody wants to see and we’re delighted that we’re a part of it,” said Cirovski. “Today was a track meet, and Sunday will be a little bit of a track meet but more of a chess match.”
“We have tremendous respect for them, played already the best college game of the year against them and now we have a chance to rest up and get ready for Round 2,” he continued.
For Clemson, a team which finished with a sub .500 record overall but managed to place fourth in the conference thanks to a late season hot streak, coming within five minutes of reaching the ACC Championship and coming up short made the loss that much more painful for the players.
“The disappointment the players take tonight will just fuel the offseason and next year,” said Noonan. “There are a lot of really good things to come for us and I think us and any one of the 48 teams when the (NCAA Tournament) draw is out can win it all.”
Sunday’s ACC Championship Final kicks off at noon at the Maryland SoccerPlex, this season’s tournament host. The 5,200 capacity stadium is expected to be at or near sellout levels with the Terps’ large local fan base in the area and two of college soccer’s top three teams competing for a championship.