By Michael Beniash
For the Journal
STORRS, Conn. — With the clocking ticking down to two minutes in regulation and an open net in front of him, freshman Ben McKendry set himself up for a tap-in opportunity that most likely would have lifted the University of New Mexico men’s soccer team into the quarterfinals of the NCAA Tournament.
“You have to put that away,” Lobo coach Jeremy Fishbein said. “That’s game over.”
McKendry lunged for the game-winner in front of the right post, but just missed wide.
It was that kind of afternoon for the Lobos, who also just missed their trip to the Elite Eight.
“Our goal is to always score two goals,” Fishbein said. “We feel if we do so we are going to win games. We had our chances today. It’s unfortunate. We just could not finish it off.”
Freshman Nicholas Zuniga powered home the game-winning goal with 5:21 left in the second overtime, lifting the fourth-seeded Huskies to a 2-1 come-from-behind win over No. 13 New Mexico on a chilly Sunday afternoon at Morrone Stadium.
“There are years where we’ve played teams off the field and we went home,” said Huskies coach Ray Reid. “I’m tired of reading on Monday morning that it’s a strange game and that it’s not a fair game with us being on the wrong end of it. This is what it’s about right now. I got a text from a fellow coach that just said, ‘survive and advance.’ That’s what it’s about.”
UConn (17-3-1), which extended its home winning streak to 38 in front of 4,315 fans, hosts No. 12 Creighton — a winner in penalty kicks over No. 5 Akron — next Sunday.
It was the second straight disappointing exit from the NCAA Tournament for New Mexico, which lost to South Florida in penalty kicks in the third round a season ago.
“We should have won the game today. We were the better team,” said Fishbein.
It showed early and often for the Lobos’ dynamic offense. The nation’s top-scoring attack pressed UConn in the first meeting between the two teams. UNM capitalized in the 31st minute as leading scorer Devon Sandoval poked in a rebound off a Michael Calderon shot.
Sandoval’s 15th goal of the season came against Big East goaltender of the year Andre Blake and left the Huskies facing just their fifth deficit of the season.
Despite owning a majority of the play throughout the contest, the Lobos (17-4-1) could not capitalize, leaving the perennial Big East contender a chance to rally.
Connecticut junior forward Mamadou Doudou Diouf tied the contest in the 75th minute with his 15th tally of the season, heading a Sean Weir headed pass past UNM goalkeeper Victor Rodriguez.
The goal came after New Mexico had a prime shot at a 2-0 lead. With 26 minutes remaining, UNM’s Blake Smith outraced Blake to a loose ball in the UConn end. Smith kicked a slow rolling ball toward the empty net, but Michael Mercado slid in to clear the ball off the goal line.
Then came the second overtime, where a New Mexico giveaway in the back led to the game-winning score. Zuniga took a through ball from Carlos Alvarez at the top of the box and beat Rodriguez into the lower left corner.
“It was a fairly routine giveaway in the back,” said Fishbein. “They took advantage of our mistake and that cost us. That’s a tough way to lose the game, a tough way to lose the season.”
New Mexico outshot UConn 13-12. Both teams had three corner kicks. Blake finished with four saves. Rodriguez, who served a one-game suspension in the second-round win over Virginia, finished with three saves. The senior made a tremendous play early in the second half, colliding with Diouf before securing the ball out of the air. The game was stopped after the play, as both coaches exchanged words on the field.
The Lobos, who own 35 wins over the past two seasons, lose six seniors to graduation: Victor Rodriguez, Travis Campbell, Devon Sandoval, Levi Rossi, Blake Smith and Nik Robson.
“We beat a very good side today,” Reid said. “New Mexico beat UCLA, SMU and UVA. That’s a really good team.”