STORRS, Conn. — A Creighton soccer team that struggled to find itself early in the season knows exactly where it will end it.
The Bluejays are headed back to the final four. Creighton got a late goal from freshman Christian Blandon, then survived 90 frantic seconds in finishing off a 1-0 win against Connecticut that sent the Bluejays back to the College Cup.
“It was an awesome feeling to get there last year, but this almost feels better,” said Brent Kallman, one of Creighton's four seniors. “With all the new guys we have, this team has a different dynamic.
“But to get back is an amazing accomplishment, and it says a ton about our coaches and program.”
The victory in front of a sellout crowd of 5,100 at Morrone Stadium extended the Bluejays' nation-leading unbeaten streak to 14 and put them in the final four for the fifth time in school history. It is the first time Creighton will make back-to-back final four appearances.
The Bluejays will play Indiana in the semifinals Friday in Hoover, Ala., a suburb of Birmingham. The winner advances to Sunday's championship match against the Maryland-Georgetown winner.
Creighton ended the 2011 season in the national semifinals, tying Charlotte but losing the penalty-kick shootout. The Bluejays started this season without eight players who started their final game last year.
“It's been a challenge but it's very rewarding in the end,” said Creighton coach Elmar Bolowich, who will be making his fifth straight College Cup appearance. “I don't know if I would have believed you if you would have told me early in the season that we'd be in this position.
“We still didn't know who we were or how we wanted to play at the end of September. This team has faced a lot of adversity all year but it's hung in there and made plays. There's something to be said for that.”
The latest adversity came Sunday as the Bluejays faced an athletic Connecticut team without two starting defenders. Jose Ribas had to sit out the match because he received a red card in the third-round win at Akron, while Eric Miller was out with a knee injury.
Creighton started Vincent Keller and Benito Amaral in their outside back spots.
“Those guys did a great job, as did Jake Brown coming off the bench in the second half,” Bluejay goalkeeper Jeff Gal said. “We had a lot of faith in them, and they did the job.”
Gal made four saves in recording his seventh shutout of the season. His last save came in the 74th minute when he dove to his left to knock away a blast by George Fochive to keep the match tied.
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Connecticut outshot Creighton 13-10, with 10 of the Huskies' attempts coming in the second half as they continued to press for the go-ahead goal. The Bluejays got two shots in the final 45 minutes but made the most of their second one.
With time running out and Bolowich on the sideline planning for what seemed like imminent overtime, Timo Pitter maneuvered into the middle of the Huskies’ defense and sent a crossing pass to Jose Gomez, who ran it down near the goal line.
“We knew they were a little sloppy in the middle,” Gomez said. “There were a lot of gaps all day. After Timo got me the ball, I cut it back. I didn’t have a good shot but I saw Christian.”
Gomez passed the ball back to Blandon, whose shot from 6 yards beat Connecticut goalkeeper Andre Blake. It was the fourth goal of the season for Blandon, who had Creighton's best scoring chance in the first half. Blake managed to get a foot on Blandon's near-post shot in the 37th minute to keep the match scoreless.
“The first half, I had one that I should have made,” Blandon said. “It just feels great to have another opportunity.”
What followed Blandon's goal was the longest 90 seconds of every Creighton player's life. Connecticut flooded the box in an attempt to tie but got just one shot — a header by Carlos Alvarez that carried wide. Creighton's defense cleared several other balls in protecting the lead.
“They put everyone in the box and fought hard,” Gal said. “But our guys were amazing. They came through in a real pressure situation.”
Said Kallman: “I think my heart stopped a couple of times, Jeff did a great job, and we managed to clear a couple of balls when it really counted.”
The loss marked the second straight season that Connecticut lost in the quarterfinals. It also snapped the Huskies' home unbeaten streak at 38, third longest in NCAA history.
“The game is a cruel game,” Connecticut coach Ray Reid said. “You have to score more than they do. You can't rely on this guy (Blake) to pitch a shutout all the time. If we had more time, we probably get the goal back. With a minute-and-a-half, that's tough.”
Connecticut ends its season at 17-4-1 while Creighton will take a 17-3-3 record to the semifinals.
“It's a great feeling to be going back,” said Gomez, Creighton's player of the year candidate. “Last year was great but this feels a little better because no one was expecting us to get there.”