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Pitt dominates Akron, 3-0, to return to the Sweet 16

AKRON — Pitt controlled the match early, and dominated No. 16 Akron at FirstEnergy Stadium – Cub Cadet Field Sunday afternoon, en route to a 3-0 victory in the Second Round of the NCAA Tournament.

The Panthers’ (11-4-5) win makes it three straight seasons with a Sweet 16 appearance.

They made it to the Elite Eight last season and the Final Four in the 2020-21 season. The win marks the first time that the Panthers defeated the Zips (11-4-5) in Akron since 1965.

It is also the first time that the Panthers won two consecutive games since October, when they defeated the Virginia Tech Hokies 1-0 on Oct. 14 and the Duquesne Dukes 5-2 on Oct. 17. It is the first clean sheet since a 0-0 tie with the Duke Blue Devils on Oct. 21 and the first clean sheet victory since that Hokies game.

“Very proud of my men,” Panthers head coach Jay Vidovich said. “They competed from the first whistle. They did a great job defending by closing out the space. Great clean sheet. Matteo as a left back pushing himself forward and creating a goal. Val finishing off with the PK. Just very proud of what they gave us. Just look forward to another opportunity to train and play this week.”

Pitt got a great opportunity in the ninth minute to score. Sophomore defender Matteo Maillefaud ran through to get a pass in the box, but Akron redshirt goalkeeper Mitch Budler clattered into him trying to take the ball and brought him to the ground.

The referee called a penalty for the foul, despite the protests from the Akron players. Senior midfielder Valentin Noel stepped up and put the ball in the left corner for the opening goal. That goal for Noel was the 32nd of his Pitt career, putting him in sole possession of second place all-time in program history. He was tied with former teammate, forward Edward Kizza, who scored 31 goals from 2017-19.

The Panthers struggled to create chances afterwards and the Zips kept the ball on the Panthers side of the field. The Zips did not make many real chances, thanks to some solid defense from the Panthers who kept them scoreless through the first half.

Pitt had two good chances to double their lead in the last 15 minutes of the first half. Junior forward Bertin Jacquesson turned his defender, but skied his shot from outside the box in the 30th minute. Noel also hit his shot way too high, despite no one around him in the 44th minute.

The Panthers got another penalty kick in the 48th minute. Jacquesson moved into the box after a pass from sophomore midfielder Michael Sullivan and Zips first-year defender Ashton Kamdem tripped him.

Noel stepped up yet again and this time he put it in the right hand corner of the net, sending Budler the other way and getting his second goal of the match to put the Panthers up 2-0.

“We try to work on it the whole semester, that mental piece,” Noel said on his two penalties. “Which is going to be very key in those very high-pressure moments. It just comes to breathing. Just knowing where you’re going to put it and stick to it. I tried to do that both times and it worked out so I’m pretty happy with it. We really thank the program because they bring people in for this kind of thing. So I think it’s very helpful and we saw that today.”

Senior goalkeeper Joe van der Sar made two big stops for Pitt in the 64th minute to keep Akron scoreless. He dove to his left to push out a good free kick and then tipped another chance soon after over the goal.

The Panthers then finished off the match in the 66th minute with another goal. Junior midfielder Filip Mirkovic took a free kick and sent in a cross. First-year defender Jackson Gillman headed that cross down and Jacquesson took a weak shot at it. Substitute sophomore forward Luis Sahmkow slotted the shot/pass right past Budler and put the game away for the Panthers.

Pitt and Akron met up on Sept. 19 at Ambrose Urbanic Field in a thrilling 3-3 tie. That game started a difficult stretch for Pitt where they only won two of their final nine games, drawing five times and losing twice.

Vidovich said that the win Sunday and the First Round win against Cleveland State last Thursday show his team’s resilience and that talent they possess that gives them the belief of a NCAA Tournament title.

“We’re happy with our progress,” Vidovich said. “The guys continue to give me everything in practice and training. They’ve had big goals this year and it’s been a tough one and they just keep bouncing back. It tells me that they’ve got a lot of heart, resiliency and that they have big ambitions to fufill.”

The Panthers also played a disciplined performance against the Zips, who continuously lost their cool and earned a number of yellow cards. An assistant coach and Zips head coach Jared Embick earned a red card as well after the game. 10 Zips players also received yellow cards throughout the match.

Noel said that the Panthers prepared well for the match and played in control, whereas Akron played in the complete opposite manner.

“As soon as the ref blows the whistle, it’s just a matter of getting back behind the ball and just stick to the next action,” Noel said. “Just be ready for the next one. I really felt like our group was ready and controlled the game compared to Akron, who were more aggressive and more stressed and making a lot of fouls. We just tried to stay calm and resilient and it worked out.”

A big star of the game for Pitt was Maillefaud. Maillefaud has stepped up in the starting role at left-back since senior defender Mohammad Abualnadi suffered an injury against Virginia on Sept. 30. Maillefaud made a big mistake in that game that resulted in the goal that settled the first loss on the year for Pitt.

Against Akron, Maillefaud played with great composure on the ball and controlled the game. He also moved forward to help create chances offensively and drew the foul for the first penalty kick of the game, helping Pitt earn the massive victory on Sunday.

Maillefaud credited his team for helping him improve over the season and that everyone is responsible for where the team is now.

“It’s teamwork,” Maillefaud said of the Akron victory. “Very happy for the whole team and for the guys who came off the bench and made a huge effort. Everyone was ready for this game. It’s a good game, but now we have to think about the next game and be ready. So very happy for the team 3-0 clean sheet and very proud of the effort.”

Pitt awaits the winner of No. 1 Kentucky vs. South Florida at 6 p.m. on Sunday night. If Kentucky wins, Pitt travels to Lexington. If South Florida wins, then Pitt hosts. The game takes place next weekend, either Saturday Nov. 26 or Sunday Nov. 27.

PItt MF Michael Sullivan

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