LEXINGTON, Ky. — On paper, the numbers the hosts brought into Pitt’s Sweet 16 matchup with Kentucky were staggering.
In seven previous matches and 13 of their past 14, the Wildcats had put home at least two goals. That list of vanquished defenses included No. 13 Indiana, which hasn’t yet given up a goal in the NCAA tournament but conceded three to Kentucky. For the year, the Wildcats had 53 markers to their name, third-highest in the nation.
And yet, Kentucky couldn’t solve the Pitt defense when it mattered most. The Panthers took the bite out of one of the nation’s strongest attacks, limiting the Wildcats to one shot on goal per half and none over the match’s final 38 minutes. Even with Pitt reduced to 10 men for the match’s last 12 minutes, Kentucky didn’t put a shot on goal, a testament to how well the Panthers performed on defense.
“It is a tremendous feat, and once again, I think it was the whole team,” Pitt coach Jay Vidovich said. “(It was) the guys that came off the bench and the guys that put pressure on their back line. We tried to make sure we were putting pressure on both sides and our guys did a great job reading it. It was just a tremendous job by everybody.”
The Panthers’ defensive prowess looked even more impressive in light of how the Wildcats attempted to press the issue. Kentucky’s speed created multiple spells of potentially dangerous possession in the attacking third, but each time, the Panthers kept sight of NCAA assist leader Nick Gutmann and Kentucky leading scorer Eythor Bjorgolfsson, forcing the Wildcats to settle for whatever look they could get.
“We’ve talked about it all year in regards to creating chances and having some idea of where we want to go with the ball and who we wanted to go where,” Kentucky coach Johan Cedergren said. “We did that again and got some good chances, but we weren’t able to find that final pass or take a touch and then shoot.
“That happens in games sometimes. I would be more disappointed if we didn’t play well or we played timid or didn’t play to our potential. But I thought we played well and it’s unfortunate that we didn’t put the ball away. I can think of three, four or five really good chances and we had two good chances after they scored with three minutes to go.”
But the Panthers were always in prime position to close off those chances, leaving the Wildcats with nothing but a few blocked shots and skied opportunities to show for their menace. Only a Casper Grening tap-in in the 52nd minute found the net all night, and even that was a result of a Pitt mistake on defense.
“We went into the half knowing that we were the better team,” Pitt midfielder Jackson Walti said. “So when they came out and knocked the first one down, I think it forced us to be strong all the way through.
Indeed, the goal proved to be the last time the Wildcats would get a shot on goal. Walti, Mateo Maillefaud and Jackson Gilman and the rest of the Panther unit regularly cleared away Kentucky’s chances, and the closest the Wildcats came was a Casper Grening cross that Joe van der Sar easily tipped out of harm’s way.
When Bertin Jacquesson did find the winner, it might have seemed a stunner to most of the crowd at the Bell Soccer Complex, but it was really a result of Pitt’s defense biding its time and giving its strikers a chance to make the most of an opportunity. That, more than anything else, proved to be the thing that frustrated the Wildcats and gave the Panthers the edge they needed to keep their season rolling.
“We knew we were going to have to absorb what they were throwing at us,” Vidovich said. “We had to stay organized, and we made a couple adjustments (after the red card). We knew they should be pretty honest defensively to match up with Bertin, which kept their two center backs further away for their services.
“The rest of the guys knew that their job was to defend. At that point, we were looking to find one on the break, and we did.”