SYRACUSE, N.Y. - The University of Vermont men's soccer team needed another rally. Vermont needed another goal to keep alive its best season in over three decades.
But that goal never arrived, the second-half magic that catapulted Vermont in the earlier rounds didn't show up when called upon. And the Catamounts' bid for a College Cup berth fell agonizingly short on Saturday afternoon.
Despite a first-half equalizer, the Catamounts couldn't conjure up a second, dropping a 2-1 decision to third-seeded Syracuse in the NCAA Tournament quarterfinals, one win shy of their first trip to the national semifinals.
After scoring a combined eight of nine goals in the second half of its first three tournament games, Vermont failed to solve the Atlantic Coast Conference champions' defense in a game featuring 24 fouls and eight yellow cards. In its 12th NCAA Tournament and fourth since 2015, Vermont was making just its second quarterfinal appearance in program history, joining the 1989 squad.
Vermont, the eighth-ranked team in the country before tourney play began last month, finishes at 16-4-2. The 16 victories are also its most in a season since 1989.
"It’s certainly a tough one, probably a million things going through my mind," UVM fifth-year senior Garrett Lillie said. "Even the last five minutes, you’re trying to focus on the game but you’re looking at the score and see a situation that’s a reality that’s looming. But when it went off, I honestly didn’t feel anything but pride.
"Obviously, I’m sad that’s it’s over. But again, looking back I can feel nothing but (being) proud."
Levonte Johnson's close-range finish with 3 minutes, 24 seconds left in the first half broke a 1-1 game, and then Syracuse (17-2-4) relied on its defense and goalie Russell Shealy to keep the advantage over 45 intense minutes after the break. The Orange, who tied Vermont 1-1 in Burlington on Sept. 2, advance to the College Cup for the first time since 2015 following a trio of one-goal tournament wins at home.
"Syracuse played a really good match and had a good plan. That’s a team that can really compete for a national championship," UVM coach Rob Dow said. "We talked about it going into the game, it’s probably not going to be an X’s and O’s game, it’s probably going to be a matchup game and that’s what it was."
Saturday's spectator crowd checked in at 1,762, bolstered by a Vermont contingent that included a UVM-fronted fan bus.
"That was a special college environment. If you’ve haven’t been to an Elite Eight college playoff game, that was fun today," Syracuse coach Ian McIntyre said. "These games can go either way and having that composure in those moments have allowed us to find ways to win games."
UVM senior goalie Nate Silveira thanked the fan support.
"They've been nothing but great this entire year," Silveira said. "And they're a big reason why we were able to make this long of a push. It definitely made my last season here that much better."
The Orange's quickness on top and midfield control put heavy pressure on UVM's back line in the early stages of Saturday's contest. That duress gave way to a corner kick in the 11th minute for Syracuse, and Curt Calov delivered the game's first blow. The sophomore scored his second goal of the season with a curling corner that Silveira couldn't punch clear, the ball settling into the back of the net for a 1-0 lead.
Just over 11 minutes later, UVM answered with a wonderstrike.
Lillie served an early ball into the box from the right sideline and the Orange failed to properly clear. A loose ball rolled softly back to a charging Daniel Pacella, who unleashed a laser from 25 yards out that froze Shealy. The one-time finish, Pacella's second of the campaign, was hammered with pace inside the left post.
On the go-ahead goal, UVM lost a 50-50 ball via a long goal kick to spring the Syracuse attack. Shealy's boot cleared the midfield line, where Opoku gathered possession. A give-and-go put Opoku in the box and a step-over move created space to send a short, ground cross to Johnson, who redirected the pass with a crafty back heel to evade Silveira (three saves).
In the second half, Vermont made some tweaks, pinching in its wider players to help combat Syracuse midfielders and dropping a forward back to contend with second balls. On the attacking end, the Catamounts challenged Shealy on corner kicks and enticing crosses into the box. But Shealy stood his ground, ranging high to snare balls or punching thwart dangerous opportunities.
Without recording an official save, Shealy loomed large protecting his line and area, McIntyre said. Syracuse defenders also cleared two balls off the line over the 90 minutes.
"Vermont is such a talented group. They've shown ways to come back and win soccer matches this year. You knew they were going to keep pushing," McIntyre said. "We are fortunate to have a terrific goalkeeper. He really showed the other side of his game. He brought that calmness to us when our backs were against the wall at the end of the game."
Vermont reached the quarterfinals with three memorable victories. The Catamounts rallied past Quinnipiac for a 3-2, double-overtime victory. They found a way to overcome a 2-0 halftime deficit at SMU to pocket another 3-2 triumph. And then they stuffed in three second-half goals to shut out UCLA at home last Saturday night in front of a sold-out crowd of 2,500.
The Orange finished with a 9-6 shots advantage; UVM had the edge on corners (6-5). Syracuse picked up 15 fouls to UVM's 9.
Despite the season-ending defeat, Vermont showed it deserved to be at this stage.
"It's the culmination of all the hard work we've put in the past couple years. We've always known we've had the team and the guys who can make it to this point and beyond," Silveira said. "We always knew that we knew good, but we just had to take that next step, to be able to play ACC teams and make a game of it, which we did today.”
This article originally appeared on Burlington Free Press: NCAA soccer tournament: Syracuse halts Vermont's run in quarterfinals