CHAPEL HILL — North Carolina wasted no time getting the upper hand against South Florida in the first round of the NCAA men’s soccer tournament.
Freshman midfielder Omar Holness scored in the fourth minute, and the Tar Heels made the early goal stand up with some stout defense for a 1-0 victory over the Bulls on Thursday night.
UNC (9-5-5), which hasn’t lost in the NCAA first round since 2004, moved on and will play at 12th-seed U.C. Irvine at 5 p.m. Sunday. The crowd of 1,336 at Fetzer Field had barely settled into its seats when the Tar Heels scored on their first shot of the night with only 3:27 elapsed – against a team that had allowed only one goal in its past five games. Cooper Vandermaas-Peeler delivered a corner kick that found Holness at the far post, and Holness one-touched a volley from 8 yards out for his second goal of the season.
“The corner kick was something we’ve been working on in practice day in and day out,” said Holness, who played at forward instead of his customary center-midfield. “I knew what to expect, and when I got my opportunity, I put it away.”
Surprisingly, it was not UNC’s earliest goal this year. Vandermaas-Peeler scored just 29 seconds into the match in a 2-1 loss at Clemson in the ACC tournament, the Tar Heels’ most recent outing before the NCAA tournament.
That loss to Clemson might have paid other dividends.
“The irony was when we lost to Clemson it gave us nine days to prepare and gave us a chance to look at some other things,” said North Carolina coach Carlos Somoano, who moved defender Jordan McCrary to midfield with the return of healthy defenders Jonathan Campbell and Colton Storm to the lineup.
North Carolina outshot USF 10-5, and the Tar Heels’ first four shots were all on target, forcing Brentton Muhammad to make three saves for South Florida (8-4-9) in the first half alone. He finished with six. Brendan Moore had to make only two routine saves all night for UNC, but he experienced some anxious moments in the final minute of the first half.
USF forward Stiven Salinas tried for a steal as Moore scooped up a through ball, and when Moore turned away he caught the onrushing Bulls forward with his elbow.
Referee Carmen Serbio stopped the clock and delivered a warning to both players after conferring with his assistant referee, but he did not issue a card.
“To be honest, I didn’t see it,” Somoano said. “I didn’t even know what was going on. That was just a silly play. It would have been strange if any decision was made on that.”
The escalating physical play would eventually yield two yellow cards on the Bulls in the second half, but neither proved costly.
“That’s the NCAA tournament,” Somoano said. “That’s two teams fighting for their season.”