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UVM men's soccer shocks Central Florida in 2OT, advances to Round of 16 at NCAA Tournament

The University of Vermont men's soccer team is making a habit of sticking around in the NCAA Tournament.

And fashioning plenty of drama in the process.

Carter Johnson's header in the 105th minute broke the deadlock and gave the Catamounts a thrilling, 3-2 double-overtime victory over No. 12-seeded Central Florida on Sunday night, sending Vermont to the third round for a second straight year.

Vermont (13-5-2) will face fifth-seeded West Virginia next Saturday. The Round of 16 game is scheduled for a 4 p.m. start.

A year ago, Vermont won three games in the tournament — two of them via second-half comeback bids — to advance to the quarterfinal round for the first time since 1989.

"We ask the guys to be mentally tough and warriors and they delivered. I’m so proud of them," UVM seventh-year coach Rob Dow said in a phone interview with the Free Press. "This group has something to prove that Vermont needs to stay on the map as one of the top programs in the country."

The University of Vermont men's soccer team celebrates a goal during its 3-2, double-overtime victory over Central Florida during the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Sunday, Nov. 19, 2023.
The University of Vermont men's soccer team celebrates a goal during its 3-2, double-overtime victory over Central Florida during the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Sunday, Nov. 19, 2023.

Sunday night, against a UCF team that had soared to No. 1 in the United Soccer Coaches national poll late in the regular season, the Catamounts garnered the better of the play and the chances. Vermont finished with 23 shots, eight on frame, to Knights' 17 shots (five on target). The Knights did, though, gain a 13-5 edge in corners.

More: Behind brilliant goals, Vermont men's soccer ousts Rider in NCAA Tournament

Vermont started on its heels. An awkward failed clearance set up UCF for an enticing chance in the second minute, and the hosts didn't miss it.

Clarence Awoudor's low, driven cross found Saku Heiskanen for a lefty, one-timed finish and 1-0 lead.

Vermont countered with pressure, and the America East Conference school earned its reward in the 17th minute. Niels Hartman intercepted an ill-advised UCF defender's pass and dribbled into the 18 before cracking a low, lefty shot for the equalizer.

"Niels, he's not a scorer. But he stepped up and buried one," Dow said.

Knotted at 1 at the break, Vermont found the go-ahead tally on a set-piece following good pressure. From outside the 18 on the left side, Yaniv Bazini, the team's leading scorer, curled in his restart from a tight angle but inside the left post to push Vermont ahead 2-1 in the 55th minute.

"(Bazini) was great tonight. He’s such a big game player," Dow said. "He has ice in his veins in these matches and he delivers every time. Every time."

Carter Johnson dribbles during Vermont's 3-2, double-overtime victory over Central Florida during the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Sunday, Nov. 19, 2023.
Carter Johnson dribbles during Vermont's 3-2, double-overtime victory over Central Florida during the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Sunday, Nov. 19, 2023.

Awoudor leveled the contest in the 77th minute. But Vermont's experience and conditioning ruled the overtime periods.

"I felt like even though we got scored on, we got stronger," said Dow, crediting the team's leaders. "You could see the fatigue in the faces of our opponent."

Jake Ashford evaded defenders with a slick step-over and then slid a pass wide for Bazini, who one-timed a curling cross for a hard-charging Johnson, who flew into the goalie box to redirect into the back of the net with his head.

"(Johnson) emptied the tank tonight and had something he could extract from late," Dow said. "That was super-brave, to put his face on the line and head it home. He's playing right wing and he makes a run (to the left) post. No one is drawing that up. That's heart and will."

Vermont is making its 13th NCAA Tournament appearance, third in a row and fifth since 2015. The Cats won their opening-round game at home last week, cruising past Rider 3-1 on the strength of Bazini's two-goal performance.

"We are doing this because there is a special chemistry with this group. They sacrifice and enjoy the moments," Dow said.

Owen Jack, Vermont's goalie, made three saves. Juanvi Munoz stopped five shots for the Knights (10-4-2).

Contact Alex Abrami at aabrami@freepressmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter: @aabrami5.

This article originally appeared on Burlington Free Press: NCAA Tournament: Vermont men's soccer beats Central Florida in 2OT