'Eaters stunned, worried

IRVINE — The team with nothing to lose refused to do just that Wednesday night.

Now UC Irvine, the top-seeded men's soccer team that dropped a 2-1 decision at home to No. 4-seeded Cal State Fullerton in the semifinals of the Big West Conference Tournament, must hope it lost just short of everything.

The No. 8-ranked Anteaters (14-3-3), who claimed the Big West regular-season title to wrap up the top seed and a home assignment against the Titans, must now hope to receive an at-large berth into the NCAA Tournament, in which they have appeared the last two years.

But, after two losses and a tie in its last four games, and with an underwhelming RPI of 62, things don't look good for a team that had taken matters into its own hands by winning the last two Big West Tournament crowns.

"Coming into this game, we knew that to get into the [NCAA] tournament, we were probably at least going to have to win one game in the [Big West] tournament," UCI senior Corey Attaway said. "So, as of right now, I am probably not too optimistic about [the NCAA Tournament pairings announcement] Monday. But all we can do now is keep our fingers crossed and wait, and react."

The Anteaters, who outscored the Titans (7-11-2) by a combined margin of 10-3 in a pair of regular-season wins, including a 7-2 rout at UCI on Oct. 23, reacted without precision on the visitors' two scoring chances Tuesday.

Fullerton, which scored on both of its first-half shots, seized the lead in the 29th minute on a well-executed connection. The play began with Michael Denny in the center of the field, arching a perfect pass onto the foot of Jonathan Birt sprinting down the right wing. Birt controlled the ball and sent a cross through the box that Nick Posthuma hammered across the goal line for his team-leading ninth goal of the season.

A miscue by UCI led to the second goal in the 42nd minute. UCI senior center defender Joel Bagby played a pass onto the foot of Oscar Aguero, who charged toward the goal along the left wing. Aguero fed a cross to Kevin Venegas inside the top of the box and Venegas redirected around a defender, then drove a blast that went off UCI goalkeeper Andrew Fontein's fingertips and into the net.

UCI had 10 shots before intermission and finished with 18, while Fullerton totaled just eight.

Fontein made three saves, while Bryan Escalante, a freshman who had played eight minutes and not recorded a save, filled in for injured Titans' starter Trevor Whiddon by making seven saves.

Forward Zach Olow angled in UCI's lone goal in the 78th minute.

UCI Coach George Kuntz said if the 'Eaters' season ended Wednesday, it would be a huge blow.

"To get into the tournament is a committee that decides on RPI and so many factors," Kuntz said. "So, we knew that this game was very important … and obviously so did Fullerton.

"This would absolutely be probably the most devastating loss that we've ever had, if we don't get a sniff of the tournament, because we've earned it. I feel like we've earned it. The committee is going to make a decision. We've been ranked in the top 10 for the whole season. It's just difficult to swallow right now."

Attaway also had a tough time swallowing after Fullerton advanced to Saturday's title clash at No. 2-seeded UC Santa Barbara, which defeated Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, 2-1, in the other semifinal.

"What really cost us the game was a couple mistakes in the back," Attaway said. "Our back four is kind of what has carried us throughout the season and those mistakes really cost us. [The Titans] had two shots and two goals in the first half, so that kind of shows you we were doing well defensively, except for those mistakes."

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