For the first time in four years, the No. 17 UCSB men’s soccer team will be playing for the Big West Tournament Championship. After being deadlocked with UC Davis through 78 minutes in the semifinal match on Wednesday, sophomore forward Ahinga Selemani unleashed a perfectly placed near-post strike from just outside the box to spring the Gauchos to a 1-0 victory.
“Tonight was a tough game. Anytime you play a team that if they lose their season’s over, you’re going to get everything they have,” Head Coach Tim Vom Steeg said. “We played well tonight. We moved the ball around well, we had our best game in terms of possession, our backs did well in trying to control the game, and we took what they gave us.”
With the win, Santa Barbara ends a streak of four consecutive postseason losses dating back to 2011 and improves to a record of 13-5-2 overall and 8-2-1 against Big West opponents.
After going winless in their final five regular season games, the Aggies defeated CSUN 2-1 in the quarterfinals to advance and have a chance to avenge two losses to the Gauchos in the previous three weeks. However, UCSB completed a perfect 3-0 sweep of Davis in 2015, dropping the Aggies to 8-10-3 overall, 3-5-3 conference.
The Gauchos will now host Cal State Fullerton in the Big West Tournament finals this Saturday. The Titans overcame an early 1-0 deficit against Cal Poly last night to take a 3-1 win at home, thanks to a second half brace by sophomore midfielder Diego Sanchez.
Fullerton enters the championship game this Saturday as the No. 1 seed in the Big West South, boasting a record of 12-7-1 overall, 7-3-1 conference.
After having 11 days off since their last regular season game, the Gauchos came out rested and healthy on Wednesday night. The game marked the third consecutive year that UCSB has entered the semifinals with home-field advantage and the No. 1 seed, but in the past the Gauchos have not been able to get the job done despite playing at home, going 0-3 in the postseason since 2013.
That all changed last night thanks to a timely one-two between Selemani and sophomore midfielder Kevin Feucht, who was placed in a more attacking role than he has been for most of the season. After receiving the ball back on the give and go, Selemani fired a shocking shot in from 25 yards out to give UCSB its only goal against Davis all season that didn’t come from the penalty spot.
“It feels good to finally bring a playoff win at home,” senior defender Duncan Backus said. “We’ve had so many letdowns in front of our fans, but to finally get into that Big West final it’s a new experience for all of us and it’s a really good opportunity to make some noise and get into the NCAA Tournament.”
It was the fourth goal for Selemani all season, justifying his All-Big West Second Team selection in his first year with UCSB.
“My goal was basically to get as many chances as I could,” Selemani said. “I was fortunate enough to get a ball from Kevin in the second half. It’s a strength of mine to put the ball on my left foot and I was lucky enough to get it past the keeper.”
Santa Barbara gained control of the game about 15 minutes in. Dominating possession for the rest of the first half and finding several good scoring chances. Junior Ismaila Jome, who has missed significant time this season with an ankle injury, was dangerous nearly every time he touched the ball, torching defenders and sending balls in from the left wing. However, Davis was able to keep the game scoreless all the way until the break.
“I had the luxury tonight of this being the first time that I can remember going into the Big West Tournament with a full complement of players,” Vom Steeg said. “[Davis] got tired, we were able to press them a little bit, we needed one good shot and Ahinga got that for us tonight.”
The Aggies picked up the pressure in the second half, attacking UCSB hard on the counter. They found their best chance to score in the 54th minute, when a header by freshman forward Kristian Heptner forced freshman goalkeeper Justin Vom Steeg to make an outstanding one-handed, diving save just inside the post.
It was a relatively quiet night for Vom Steeg, but his two saves in the game helped give UCSB its second consecutive 1-0 victory, both of which came against Davis.
“I thought it was a great game. It was entertaining,” Davis Head Coach Dwayne Shaffer said. “I give all the credit to Santa Barbara, that’s probably the best team I’ve seen in Santa Barbara in five years. I was impressed.”
UCSB will now shift its focus to Saturday’s game, when it will play a Fullerton team that it took two overtimes to defeat at home just over a month ago.
The Big West Tournament Championship will be played Saturday night at Harder Stadium.
A version of this article appeared on page 13 of November 12, 2015’s print edition of the Daily Nexus.