Last-second goal ends USC's soccer season

nwhite@thestate.comNovember 21, 2009 

Wake Forest's Jill Hutchinson sprinted to the corner as the second-half clock ticked down in Friday's NCAA third-round tournament game against South Carolina.

10, 9, 8, 7, 6 ...

With the Deacons' lining up for a corner kick in a scoreless match that appeared headed to overtime, Hutchinson quickly placed the ball on the ground and lofted it to the front of USC's net.

5, 4, 3, 2 ...

There, Bess Harrington had positioned herself for a header as the ball hung in the air. And with a flick of her head at the 89:59 mark - one second before the end of regulation - she scored the goal that stunningly ended USC's greatest season before a record women's soccer crowd of 4,347 at Stone Stadium on Friday night.

As the final second ticked off with the ball bouncing into the Gamecocks' goal, USC's players collapsed in disbelief as the Wake Forest bench emptied onto the pitch. The Gamecocks (19-4-2) would not advance to the quarterfinals, and Wake Forest (16-5-2) would. The Deacons will play the winner of today's match between North Carolina and Maryland next weekend.

"Jill put the ball in a perfect place," said Harrington, a 5-foot-9 midfielder who was unmarked on the play. "I saw the ball coming to me."

And when she headed the ball into the left side of the net?

"I said, 'It's going in, it's going in,' " she said. "I'm still kind of in shock it happened."

Equally shocked were the Gamecocks, whose second-half momentum halted on the match's final play.

"Wake Forest didn't give up," USC senior midfielder Kim Miller said. "We tried to get our team in position. I can't even tell you what happened. I looked over, and the ball was already in the net."

Senior defender Blakely Mattern couldn't tell how much time was left on the clock as the play developed.

"It was so quick how it happened," she said.

Both USC coach Shelley Smith and Wake Forest coach Tony da Luz said they had never been involved in a match that ended on the soccer equivalent of a buzzer-beater.

"I've heard about it, but I haven't seen it up close," Smith said. "It's such a disappointment. We gave it everything we had. Unfortunately, it wasn't (over) one second sooner."

If Smith had it to do over again, she would have wanted her team to hustle over and challenge the corner kick, Wake's eighth and final one of the night. To that point, the contest was so evenly-matched that it looked as if overtime was inevitable. But Wake's battle to the final whistle paid off.

"This game was crazy," da Luz said. "I tell our team, 'Every big game has a lot of crucial moments.' This one had a little bit of everything and a lot of drama."

The Gamecocks pressed the attack hard in the first 10 minutes of the second half, creating three shots and several more scoring opportunities. But they were not able to convert.

Another prime chance came in the 61st minute when Brooke Jacobs slipped behind the Deacons' back line and had two shots in front of the net. Wake goalkeeper Amanda Barasha deflected the first one, and Jacobs hit the right post with the follow.

"It could have gone in easily, and that changes the game there," Smith said.

The USC players knew it came down to a matter of inches.

"Brooke had a great run," midfielder Kortney Rhoades said. "Unfortunately, the post was on Wake's side, not our side."

Wake took charge in the first half with USC controlling the flow of play for much of the second half.

"The first half we were a little sluggish. The second half we were out there. That was us," Miller said. "We brought it to them. We had our chances. It just didn't go our way."

The teams went into the half tied 0-0, and scoring opportunities were far and few between. USC managed two shots, the best was Jacobs' left-footed strike in the 35th minute. But Barasha made the save.

The Deacons put together more opportunities - four corner kicks and eight shots - but only one presented a threat. A bullet by Hutchinson, Wake's leading scorer, in the 37th minute hit the crossbar and bounced away.

But Wake's final opportunity at game's end didn't bounce away. Smith called this loss harder to swallow than any other kind.

"It is tougher in a way because you don't deserve to lose," she said. "It's disappointing because you know how close you are (to overtime)."

And the players may have been beaten, but they were not bowed, especially the senior co-captains, Mattern and Miller.

"I'm sad right now because of the shock," Mattern said. "But we're leaving with our heads high."

Miller agreed.

"Everything we've gotten, we've deserved. We've worked our butts off. How hard you work is how far you get."

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