In another game that went right down to the wire, the Wake Forest Demon Deacons escaped with a 2-1 win against the Kentucky Wildcats in the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament. With this win, Wake moves to 13-2-2 on the season, while Kentucky falls to 12-5-2 to finish their campaign. Wake also moves on to the Elite Eight for the 5th time in 6 seasons under Bobby Muuss, setting up a Big Four battle with the North Carolina Tar Heels. It was another rough ride for the Deacs, but they found a way through in the end.
Early on, Kentucky’s press was causing significant problems for the Deacs. A chance inside of nine minutes nearly fell to Brock Lindow after a tough ball from Prince Amponsah back into the middle of the field forced an Omar Hernandez turnover, but Hernandez was able to recover and make a great tackle in the area to earn a goal kick and snuff out the danger. Hernandez made another big play in his own box three minutes later when a scuffed clearance from Takuma Suzuki fell to Daniel Evans alone just inside the box, with Hernandez coming over to make the block on what looked to be a great chance for Kentucky. On the ensuing corner another chance fell to the Wildcats, with Wake’s clearance being collected by Kentucky, and the Wildcats creating a chance for Clay Holstad on a cutback to the top of the box, but his low fizzing effort through traffic went wide of Cole McNally’s goal.
After those first 15-20 minutes though, Wake was able to play their game, and found a beautiful team goal in the 20th minute. It started with Garrison Tubbs collecting a ball on the right flank from Nico Benalcazar, then carrying inside before passing it back to Jake Swallen, who would give it to Hernandez ahead of him, then getting it back and hitting it up the right flank to David Wrona, who found Tubbs streaking inside unmarked. Tubbs would put the ball across to Hosei Kijima, who got it stuck under his feet before taking a touch forward, then passing to Kyle Holcomb, who would take a touch onto his right foot and slam it past Enrique Facusse. It was a huge goal to take the pressure off of Wake after a shaky 20 minutes, allowing them to impose themselves onto Kentucky. Hosei Kijima almost found another 3 minutes later, receiving a pass inside from Prince Amponsah and hitting one on target from 25 yards out, but Facusse was able to get up to it and parry it over. Only moments later Wake almost lost their lead on a bizarre play, with a long ball from Holstad finding Evans over the top behind Wake’s back line. Cole McNally seemed to be caught in two minds and was in no man’s land, stuck between his goal and Evans, but he was able to make a save diving back toward his goal on Evans’ curling effort from the right flank. Few notable chances would fall to either team for the rest of the half, and Wake seemed to be in full control after weathering the worst of Kentucky’s press. The score at half was 1-0 for the Deacs.
Kentucky almost found an equalizer again almost immediately out of the half however, with a long throw from Trey Asensio being cleared by Wake, but only to Marcel Minzer at the top of the box, whose driven effort got through traffic but was blocked by David Wrona inside the 6 yard box. The game was very back in forth at this point, with neither team getting a real concrete chance, although Omar Hernandez, brimming with confidence after his brace last game, dug out a 30 yard shot that bounced just wide of the Wildcat goal. Wake would find their second in the 62nd minute, with Hosei Kijima collecting a ball on the left flank from Takuma Suzuki, cutting back inside, dribbling by two players, before playing a cutting ball through the Kentucky defense, just beyond the reach of Trey Asensio, to Kyle Holcomb, who would slam this one home through the legs of Enrique Facusse.
Kentucky would respond well to this goal, however, and put Wake under serious pressure for the remainder of the game. Only 4 minutes later, they would scrape a goal back, with a ball across from Marcel Minzer finding its way to Brock Lindow, who would turn to goal inside the box and stuff it under Cole McNally to cut the deficit to one. Wake would have to fight against the tide for the rest of the game, defending long balls forward for the rest of the contest. Ryan Fessler would set up a chance for Wake during this span, giving it wide to Hosei Kijima whose left footed shot from a wide angle would rattle the crossbar. Although Kentucky caused all kinds of discomfort in the last 25 minutes with their long balls, they couldn’t find a way through for the second time, giving Wake a 2-1 victory and a ticket to the Elite Eight.
As for man of the match, although Kyle Holcomb scored a brace, I have to go with Hosei Kijima, who was just outstanding in this one. He had both assists in this one and did well in every aspect of this game, keeping the ball well, making good decisions, coming back to help defensively, really he did all you could have asked for in a winger, he was truly spectacular. At this point, I’m not sure if there is a position he can’t play, as this is the fifth position he has played this spring, as he has played on both flanks, in both fullback slots, and in the middle of the field, and has put in a good shift in all of these spots. I also think Garrison Tubbs had another strong two way game at right back, helping create the first goal and doing well defensively. The team generally was able to do the same thing that it did against Coastal Carolina, winning a lot of second balls and surviving their opponents’ set piece plays. It was another professional performance; they got their lead and they saw it out, and you can’t ask for much more than that.
In the Elite Eight, Big Four rival UNC Chapel Hill awaits after upsetting the top seed in this quadrant of the bracket, the fourth seeded Stanford Cardinal, by a score of 1-0. Kickoff is slated for 5:00 on May 10th in Cary, North Carolina, and if Wake’s recent history with UNC carries on in this one, you shouldn’t expect a pretty game, but you should expect high drama.