CLEMSON, S.C. – No. 15 UC Santa Barbara dominated the first half and ended the game equal in shots against Clemson, the No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament, but eventually dropped the contest by a score of 3-2 after ceding a pair of second half scores to the hosts in Sunday night's Sweet Sixteen matchup at Historic Riggs Field.
UCSB, making its seventh appearance in the Sweet Sixteen and its 12th overall in the NCAA Tourney, ends its season with a 14-7-2 record. ACC-member Clemson improved to 17-2-2 in advancing to the NCAA Quarterfinals, in which it will host No. 10 Maryland for the right to go to the College Cup.
Taking over the game – which was peppered by light-to-medium rainshowers throughout – in the first half, the Gauchos scored the all-important first goal of the contest in the 39th minute through junior midfielder Seo-In Kim, but the Tigers landed an equalizer in the final minute of the frame after defender Aaron Jones made a 50-yard run up the field and unleashed a 25-yard, off-foot laser into the top right corner of the net.
Heading into the locker room with a level score despite being thoroughly outplayed, Clemson rebounded with a better showing in the second half, outshooting the Gauchos 7-4 and maintaining a much higher rate of possession than in the first half. That time on the ball led to a pair of goals for the Tigers, which proved to be decisive after Kevin Feucht's sixth goal of the season for UCSB tied the score at two-all at the 69-minute mark.
Overall, it was an open game that could have gone either way. Unfortunately for the Gauchos, Clemson chose Sunday to hit a pair of perfectly-placed off-foot shots from outside the box for goals.
"I told the players after the game that I was proud of their performance and how they played tonight," said UCSB head coach Tim Vom Steeg. "They followed directions and gave me everything they had. I think that anyone who watched the game or was on the field can see that that game was there to be won."
UCSB's starting XI put on an exhibition in the game's early going, as they were constantly on the ball in their offensive half. If Clemson got possession back, UCSB usually grabbed it right back – Feucht and Duncan Backus did an especially good job in the ball-winning department – and went straight back to attacking.
Unfortunately, this didn't result in a goal early on, though the Gauchos came close on several occassions. Backus actually looked to have put UCSB up with a redirection off a corner in the second minute, but the Gauchos' celebration was cut short by a late offside whistle. Feucht had a great look at net in the 22nd minute, but his point blank redirect attempt went just over the crossbar.
A number of subs came in late in the first half for UCSB, and those reserves combined to finally help the Gauchos break through.
Less than 60 seconds after being subbed in, freshman forward Cody Gibson made his presence known, creating the goal by making a run down the right wing, then cutting in and looping a long cross all the way to the far post. At the back post, an unmarked Josue Espana headed the cross back across goal, then Kim dove and headed it in for his second goal of the season.
UCSB's lead was short-lived however, as Jones made his out-of-nowhere run in the final minute before striking a left-footed shot off the post and in.
"The most disappointing part was the first goal for Clemson," said Vom Steeg. "To work so hard in that first half, get the goal to go ahead, and then not get rewarded was a real letdown."
The Tigers appeared to make the right adjustments at the halftime break, as they were much more effective on the ball in the second half.
In a reversal of the first half, it was the Gauchos who were getting off shots despite the lack of possession, evidenced by Ismaila Jome shots from the right side of the penalty area in the 51st and 62nd minutes.
Clemson eventually found the back of the net to go ahead in the 69th minute, when the right-footed Diego Campos cut across the box from right to left and then placed a left-footed strike right into the top left corner of the net.
Fifty seconds later, a heads-up play from Feucht allowed the Gauchos to briefly tie the contest, as a slick pitch and poor communication between defender and keeper led to a too-soft backpass in the box from Clemson. UCSB's German midfielder alertly pounced on the weak header, tapping it into the open net and making it 2-2.
Clemson went ahead for good in the 79th minute with an exhibition in link-up play, as the Tigers connected four consecutive first-touch passes en route to an eight-yard tap-in goal for Kyle Murphy. The final pass of the sequence came from Saul Chinchilla, who lured a pair of UCSB defenders towards him in anticipation of a shot before sliding it over to Murphy in the middle of the 18-yard box.
Freshman keeper Justin Vom Steeg, who missed UCSB's Second Round matchup vs. South Carolina and the second half of the Big West Championship, made four saves on the night. He was especially big for the Gauchos early in the first half, repelling a trio of counter-attack opportunities from Clemson's leading goalscorer T.J. Casner.
UCSB, winners of 10 or more games for 15 consecutive years and postseason participants in 13 of the last 14 seasons, has a good chance to be even better in 2016, as all but two starters from Sunday's game and all but one of the Gauchos' league-high nine All-Big West selections are juniors or younger.