South Carolina’s run through the Conference USA tournament and into the third round of the NCAA tournament came to an end Sunday afternoon at Stone Stadium.
Michigan ran past the Gamecocks 3-1 behind the play of prolific scorers Justin Meram and Soony Saad to advance to the Elite Eight next weekend.
Meram netted a pair of goals to up his season total to 15, while Saad scored his team-high 19th goal as the Wolverines (16-4-3), the Big Ten tournament champions, halted the four-game winning streak of the Gamecocks (13-7-2) and their first trip to the tournament in five seasons.
“So many times in these games, it comes down to you’ve got to make the play,” said USC coach Mark Berson, whose 33rd team was making the program’s 19th trip to the tournament. “As the game went on, I don’t think there was any doubt in our players’ mind that we were going to make the play. But today Michigan did.”
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The biggest play came in the 64th minute, when Meram took a pass on the right wing and fired a shot past USC goalkeeper Jimmy Maurer into the far corner for the game’s first goal.
“We’re a second-half team,” Meram said. “We’ve been like that all season.”
Matters became more complicated a minute later when USC senior defender Will Traynor was given a red card for elbowing Meram in the face as he went up for a header.
With the Gamecocks playing a man down, Saad added a second goal in the 71st minute when he beat a defender down the left side and drilled a shot into the far side. Ten minutes later, the Wolverines put things away with a Meram strike from the left side.
“Coming out in the second half, we played well, but they got a chance and they finished it,” Maurer said. “We went down a man, and after that, we got really stretched and it made it tough to play.”
The Gamecocks, who won the Conference USA tournament, finally broke through in the 84th minute on a header by senior Sam Arthur, his first goal of the season, but it was too little, too late. Senior forward Blake Brettschneider, the conference co-MVP and USC’s leading scorer with seven goals and nine assists, lamented that he was unable to put away any of his seven shots.
He was disappointed to end his career on a day the Gamecocks didn’t play their best.
“We created a couple of quality chances in the first half, and I think even in the second half. Unfortunately, we were just a bit off,” Brettschneider said. “For all the days in the year to be just a bit off, this is not the easiest one to take. Hats off to Michigan. They played a great game and finished their chances.”
He admitted the red card make a tough task even tougher, especially since it meant losing a talented defender like Traynor.
“It’s just difficult, especially in a game like this one where momentum and emotion can change everything,” Brettschneider said.Michigan coach Steve Burns knew it would be hard for South Carolina to handle his team’s high-powered attack down a player. He liked how his players kept their composure as they continued to pressure USC’s back line.
“It certainly made a difference in the game,” Burns said.” Once we went up a goal and up a man, we’ve been in that position before. We train for it a decent amount.”
South Carolina saw it deepest postseason run since 1998 end before a home crowd of 2,256. Michigan outshot USC 22-18, and Wolverine goalkeeper Chris Blais made six saves, while Maurer finished with nine.
Several of USC’s best chances came in the first half on blasts by Brettschneider and freshman Bradlee Baladez, but both sailed high. Meanwhile, Meram, a senior forward, and Saad, a freshman forward, peppered Maurer throughout the first half before finally breaking through in the second period.
“They’re quality, quality players,” Maurer said of the Michigan attackers. “I definitely had to be alert all game. They were flying around, and they got their chances and stuck a few of them in.”Berson understood what the Gamecocks were facing.
“They’re good players. They didn’t catch us by surprise at all,” he said. “These teams wouldn’t be here if they didn’t have high-quality players that could bring a lot of excitement to the game.”
Maurer was proud of the excitement the USC seniors brought to the program while leading the team to the first postseason trip of their four-year careers.
“This season has made it all worth it,” he said.