'Eaters claim crown

IRVINE — The collection of celebratory choreography was on full display, but not until the UC Irvine men's soccer team showed it had indeed been there before at the Big West Conference Tournament championship game.

The Anteaters, who claimed the conference regular-season crown and topped UC Riverside in the home semifinal, scored in the fifth minute of the second overtime to defeat UC Santa Barbara, 3-2, Saturday at Anteater Stadium.

The victory was the third in as many Big West tournament title-game appearances for UCI, all against the Gauchos.

The No. 11-ranked Anteaters (16-5-1) topped the No. 15-ranked Gauchos (14-6-1) for the second time this season.

The win assured UCI an automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament, which will be its third appearance in the event.

UCI celebrated undoubtedly its most dramatic conference tournament final victory over the Gauchos, its most heated rival. UCI trounced the Gauchos, 4-2, in the inaugural tournament final in 2008. Coach George Kuntz's 'Eaters posted a 4-1 title-winning triumph over UCSB in 2009.

To accentuate the adrenaline-rushing win, made possible when senior Miguel Ibarra booted home a rebound off the left post from a shot created and executed by freshman Cameron Iwasa in the 104th minute, UCI players slid in unison on their chests after running across the field to thank the fans in the stands.

Then, after accepting the trophy at midfield and posing for the championship team photo, they all chanted in unison to proclaim their status as champions, then all fell backward to the wet grass, as if they were felled trees.

Finally, they executed the dousing of Kuntz with ice water, adding individual streams from their water bottles to the obligatory bucket over the shoulders.

The game-winning goal was only the latest of three big ones for the winners, who forced overtime in the 88th minute.

Trailing, 2-1, senior Jimmy Turner launched a throw-in toward the far post and sophomore Enrique Cardenas got a piece of it with his head to direct it over the goalkeeper to make it 2-2.

UCSB had taken the lead in the 68th minute, when Dom Sarle redirected a free kick from Luis Silva into the upper corner of the net to give the Gauchos their only lead.

UCI opened the scoring in the 39th minute when senior Christian Hernandez took possession near midfield, then served a ball on the ground toward the right wing. Sophomore Christopher Santana ran onto the ball and angled inside the 18-yard box, before blasting a shot on a tough angle not far from the goal line. The ball went in, giving UCI the advantage for the next 25 minutes.

UCSB got its first equalizer on a penalty kick from Silva in the 64th minute. The PK was created when Sam Garza was tripped by UCI defender Bello Alhassan in the box.

Fontein (four saves) appeared to guess right, as he lunged to his right, where he found himself in the path of Silva's shot. But the ball trickled under Fontein's right elbow. The tension increased when the scoreboard clock stopped working at halftime, necessitating that the time be kept by officials on the field.

UCI finished with 17 shots and the Gauchos had 15 as both teams strung together numerous scoring opportunities.

Both teams had an apparent goal negated by a whistle and Hernandez found himself behind the defense and one-on-one with Gauchos' goalkeeper Andre Grandt (three saves) late in the second half. But Hernandez's one-on-one shot missed wide right.

"For a while there, I was thinking it just wasn't going to be our night," said Kuntz, who specifically cited the Hernandez misfire as evidence. But UCI continued to battle and, ultimately, got what it wanted most.

Ibarra, who had both goals in the Oct. 1 regular-season win at UCSB and had an assist in Wednesday's semifinal win over UC Riverside, was named tournament MVP.

Ibarra and Hernandez had four shots apiece to top the UCI attack that also included forays from Turner, Trey Hayes, Everett Pitts and Tarek Morad.

Sophomore Jake Marcon and freshman Bryan Breslin, filling in for injured starter Marco Franco, helped contain the explosive Santa Barbara attack.

UCSB had five shots from Garza, as well as three from Silva, the conference's leading scorer, and two from forward David Opoku.


Twitter: @BarryFaulkner5

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