HOOVER, Ala. — As Charlotte 49ers defender Isaac Cowles prepared to take the deciding penalty kick in a shootout against Creighton in Friday's College Cup semifinals at Regions Park, he got a little pep talk from teammate Gavin Dawson.
"I've got to give it to Gavin," said Cowles. "He said, 'Hey, no pressure, have fun.' I thought, 'Good point!'"
With that, Cowles calmly made his penalty kick, giving the unseeded 49ers (16-4-4) a 4-1 advantage and - after a 0-0 tie - a spot in Sunday's championship game.
The 49ers, playing for a national title in any sport for the first time, will face the winner of Friday's late game between North Carolina and UCLA at 4 p.m. Sunday.
Dawson was every bit the star of the game as Cowles. But as Charlotte's backup goalkeeper, he came into the game only for the shootout, substituting for Klay Davis, who had shut out Creighton over 110 minutes.
After Creighton's Bruno Castro made his penalty kick, Dawson saved a shot by Kris Clark, giving the 49ers a 2-1 edge. The 49ers went up 3-1 when Donnie Smith made his, then got to the brink of Sunday's final when Creighton's Ethan Finlay's shot sailed high.
That left it to Cowles, whose low shot beat Creighton's record-setting goalkeeper Brian Holt. The game, which technically ended in a 0-0 tie, was Holt's 44th career shutout, an NCAA record.
It was also Creighton's ninth consecutive shutout, but it didn't mean anything in the end.
The Bluejays, who won their quarterfinal game by beating South Florida 1-0 in overtime last Sunday, had the better first half, out-shooting Charlotte 7-2.
Davis made a diving save of a 28-yard free kick by Creighton's Bruno Castro in the ninth minute. The Bluejays nearly went a goal up when Dion Acuff broke through and hit the post.
In the second half, however, Charlotte found its offensive bearings. 49ers midfielder Donnie Smith (Charlotte Catholic) began to test Creighton's left side, beating defenders constantly and nearly scoring when he launched a near-post shot that Holt barely got to.
"The coaches are always encouraging me to take defenders on," said Smith. They stopped me a couple of times, but I just (kept) going at them."
Smith's runs energized the 49ers, who seemed to have more energy at the end of the game than Creighton
"We got a little sniff of excitement," said 49ers coach Jeremy Gunn. "Then Donnie just started surging forward. He was incredible."
The 49ers advanced on penalty kicks for a second consecutive time in the tournament. Charlotte and Connecticut played to a 0-0 tie last week in the quarterfinals, with the 49ers - and Dawson - prevailing.