'Eaters surprised

IRVINE — Even in a sport known as "the beautiful game," there is no allowance for style points.

In fact, where it needed them most, there were no points at all for the host UC Irvine men's soccer team, which twice lost leads before losing a Big West Conference match, 3-2, to UC Riverside.

The No. 9-ranked Anteaters were the most aesthetic and offensive team on the pitch in its final regular-season home game of the season.

UCI posted a 20-8 advantage in shots over the Highlanders. But UC Riverside was the most opportunistic team, twice converting in the final 11-plus minutes to upset the conference-leading 'Eaters.

Humberto Santiago scored an unassisted goal to pull the visitors (9-5-2, 4-3-1 in conference) even at 2 in the 79th minute.

UC Riverside then got an elegant goal of its own when Richie Osborne ran onto a through ball and delivered a cross to Cesar Diaz Pizarro, who put away the game-winner in the 88th minute.

The loss could be costly for UCI (13-5-1, 5-3-1), which appeared it would add to its Big West lead when it twice earned one-goal advantages.

Coach George Kuntz's defending regular-season conference champions instead saw their lead diminish with just one Big West match remaining.

UCI takes 16 points (three for a win and one for a tie) into its conference finale on Tuesday at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

UC Davis (15 points) has two matches left, as do UC Santa Barbara (12 points) and Cal State Northridge (11 points). UC Riverside (14 points) has one match left in the regular season as teams vie for four berths in the Big West Conference Tournament. The conference tournament winner earns an automatic berth into the 48-team NCAA Tournament.

"It's senior night and guys have to care more about protecting the lead," Kuntz said. "We were up twice. You have to be smarter with the ball and things that we've worked on. It's very disappointing how we gave up those [final two] goals.

"We squandered too many scoring chances and we lost too many challenges in the air. That's just unacceptable. [The loss] is just really disappointing. Beyond disappointing."

Freshman Cameron Iwasa opened the scoring, taking a lead pass from Christopher Santana and converting in the 13th minute. Iwasa's booming shot from about 14 yards out went through the clutches of goalkeeper Cody Suppe and into the net.

After Jose Diaz knotted the score in the 39th minute, Christian Hernandez finished a smooth three-man connection to give the hosts a 2-1 lead in the 68th minute.

Santana began the exchange just inside midfield, sending a ball along the ground into open space just outside the 18-yard box. Miguel Ibarra sprinted ahead of a defender, picked it up in stride and fired what appeared to be a shot. The ball deflected off a defender toward the middle of the field, where Hernandez knocked in the rebound for his team-leading seventh goal of the season.

"You can out-possess teams and you can out-shoot teams," Kuntz said. "But you have to execute when you have chances. We didn't battle in the second half. We didn't battle like we have. I just challenged the guys [in his postgame address] because that's not even close.

"[The Highlanders] almost had to win to stay alive tonight," Kuntz said. "Everyone we've played has been bringing their best, and our guys have to be able to match it. If you want to go further in this game and prolong your season, you have to be able to match it."

Hernandez had five shots, while Ibarra and Iwasa had four apiece.

Senior goalkeeper Andrew Fontein, who had no chance on any of the three goals, was not credited with a save.

The Anteaters, who won the conference regular-season title last season but were upset in the conference tournament semifinals and denied an at-large berth into the NCAA Tournament, have won just one of their last five games after a 12-2 start.


Twitter: @BarryFaulkner5

Copyright © 2019, Daily Pilot
EDITION: California | U.S. & World