By Sam Rabuck, Staff Writer
If you were to combine the level of drama from “Downton Abbey,” “Mad Men,” and “House of Cards,” it wouldn’t come close to that of the UNH women’s soccer team’s playoff victory over Binghamton (7-9-3) Thursday night.
Leading in penalty kicks by a tally of 4-3, all junior Kirsten O’Neil needed to do was put the ball in the back of the net to send the Wildcats (7-8-3) off the America East Conference semifinals, and that’s exactly what she did as the Wildcats knocked off Binghamton 1-1 (4-2 PKs).
“That’s the heart of a champion right there,” said head coach Steve Welham. “They just kept going and creating chances in overtime, and that’s what you have to do, just keep going and going.”
In the 62nd minute of play with the score tied 0-0, freshman Brooke Murphy changed the complexion of the game.
After a series of Binghamton passes were broken up by the gritty Wildcats defense, the ball lied motionlessly on the turf at midfield. Players from both teams looked at the ball, but no one made a move, except for Murphy.
Murphy took the ball in stride, and broke through two Binghamton defenders. She faked right, left, and back to her right, and then with the defense at her back, fired the ball off her right foot into the top left corner of the net, giving the Wildcats a 1-0 advantage.
“I knew I had two defenders behind me, so I thought, ‘Why not attack the space?’” Murphy said. “I saw the keeper move to the right a little and I shot it. It just went my way.”
As the clock wound down into the final few minutes of regulation, and the Wildcats squashed opportunity after opportunity for Binghamton, the game appeared to be all but over.
With less than 90 seconds to play, Binghamton increased offensive pressure and forced the ball out of bounds off the Wildcats. On the ensuing corner kick, Binghamton’s Jocelyn Acor found Valerie McNamara and put the ball past goalkeeper Mimi Borkan, leveling the score with 64 seconds to play.
“[After the goal] we just brought it in and said ‘This is our game,’” Borkan said. “It had been our game the whole while and we just knew we weren’t going to give it up. We played with everything we had from there on out.”
And that’s exactly what the Wildcats did as both teams headed into overtime. Physical play from both teams left several players on the ground, as neither team was willing to cede an inch.
“Our girls kept going,” Welham said. “They really laid everything on the table. We were pegged back, we thought we had that game and then (Binghamton) had a great equalizer. But, we picked ourselves back up.”
After 20 minutes of intense overtime play that saw game winning chances from both sides, the two teams headed into penalty kicks.
Binghamton scored on its first penalty kick and the Wildcats answered with a goal from Megan Ledwith.
On the second kick for Binghamton, Borkan guessed correctly and dove to her right, making the save and putting the Wildcats in position to take the scoring advantage, which UNH would capitalize on as Murphy drilled her PK into the back of the net.
With the Wildcats up 2-1, Binghamton desperately needed a score to give themselves a reasonable chance of prevailing, but the ball hit the post, and UNH held its 2-1 lead.
Senior Jenna Shaddock, who played well all night, made a shifty move on the approach, froze the goalie, and gave the Wildcats a 3-1 edge.
Binghamton, now on its last scoring chance and faced with elimination, came up with an answer, and the night wasn’t over yet for the Wildcats.
With the Wildcats only needing one more score to punch their ticket to the semi-finals, O’Neil answered the call, and put the ball over the line to send the Wildcats on to the next round.
“Big time players step up in big games,” Welham said.
With the victory over Binghamton, the Wildcats hit the road for the semi-final round against the University of Maryland at Baltimore County on Sunday, a team the Wildcats tied on Oct. 9.
Welham indicated that in order for his Wildcats to win at UMBC, the team needs to increase pressure offensively and deliver the knockout blow early.
“We just have to be a little more ruthless in and around the goal,” Welham said.
For Murphy and her teammates, the motivation is simple.
“We’re not done playing,” Murphy said. “We want to play on Sunday, we still have our seniors that we’re playing for, and we’re not done practicing yet.”