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Encore Élite: Ten-Man Pitt stuns No. 1 Kentucky on late Jacquesson strike

Photo courtesy Pitt Athletics

LEXINGTON, Ky. — As the trainers coalesced around Kentucky’s Martin Soereide on the field, Pitt coach Jay Vidovich brought the Panthers together and confirmed that nothing had changed with their game plan.

Thanks to a harsh red card decision against defenseman Henrique Gallina, the Panthers would have to play the final 12 minutes against top-seeded Kentucky a man down. But Pitt had held the better of the play for most of the night, and the Panthers weren’t intimidated at the prospect of holding off the Wildcats.

Pitt stuck to its style, and when opportunity presented itself, Bertin Jacquesson took full advantage.

In the 87th minute, the junior found an opening at the top of the box and let fly. With Casper Mols at the top of the goal area, the Kentucky keeper stood no chance. Jacquesson’s shot sailed over his head and into the net, giving Pitt the unlikely edge. When the Wildcats’ final efforts fell by the wayside, the Panthers had earned their third straight trip to the Elite Eight, besting Kentucky by a 2-1 count on Sunday at Bell Soccer Complex in Lexington.

“It was the same mentality we demonstrated the whole match,” Vidovich said. “It was sticking to our plan, and we followed it even better than we thought. We understood we needed to fight and battle like we had from the beginning. They stepped it up and seized the moment, and I’m very proud of them.”

The Panthers (11-4-5) seized the moment by handling both the conditions and adversity better than the Wildcats (15-1-5). Harsh winds and rain dominated in Lexington, leading both teams to adjust in the match’s opening minutes. While Kentucky opted to stick with long balls and force the issue, Pitt let the game develop. The result was that the Panthers created more chances and grew into the match, believing they deserved to win.

That proved crucial in the 52nd minute, when Kentucky broke through first on a cross that Casper Grening put in the back of the net. For most opponents, giving up the first goal to Kentucky proved a death sentence. Out of 20 matches, the Wildcats scored first 12 times, and only West Virginia managed to battle back to force a draw.

But after facing a tough ACC schedue, Pitt had been here before. Rather than cowering as most Kentucky opponents did, the Panthers came to the sidelines angry and determined. Two minutes after Grening’s goal, Pitt leveled the match on a rebound from Valentin Noel, proving it still had control of the match.

“When they scored, it didn’t really matter,” midfielder Jackson Walti said. “We knew we were the better side, and it showed that we can turn it up another notch from the get-go. We could have showed a lot better than we did. They haven’t played an ACC team all year (other than rival Louisville), and we showed the level of competition is a lot stronger where we play.”

As the Wildcats struggled to unlock the Panthers’ defense, Pitt pushed forward, trusting its back line to keep Kentucky at bay. For the match, the Wildcats took 11 shots and put a mere two on frame, a far cry from their usual fierce attack. Even when Pitt went down to 10 men, the Panthers kept their nerve, figuring the Wildcats couldn’t push because of Jacquesson and Josh Luchini sitting up top.

In the 87th minute, that’s exactly how things played out.

“Josh made a good run behind, and I knew he wasn’t going to goal,” Jacquesson said. “He laid it back to me, and I took a touch on the side and the space was open. I always fake so the ball goes across my body, and it just happened. I wasn’t surprised, I train every day for those shots.”

The Panthers weren’t surprised either, as they reached the Elite Eight for the third straight season. Pitt became the third ACC team to reach that level, and the Panthers believe that the lessons they’ve learned have them ready to face Portland with a chance to return to the College Cup semifinals.

“We know we’re a good team,” Vidovich said. “We weren’t seeded because a lot of things that happened during the year where we didn’t capitalize. But we kept learning and kept getting better. Lessons were learned, and we’ve gotten this far. I hope that beating a quality team like Kentucky serves as another lesson for what we have to do against Portland next weekend.”

PItt MF Michael Sullivan

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