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Kentucky guts out a win to reach NCAA soccer’s Elite Eight

Photo slideshow: Kentucky advances to NCAA soccer’s Elite Eight

Kentucky's men's soccer team defeated Lipscomb 2-1 in the NCAA Tournament's Sweet Sixteen on Saturday night in Lexington.
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Kentucky's men's soccer team defeated Lipscomb 2-1 in the NCAA Tournament's Sweet Sixteen on Saturday night in Lexington.

Kentucky’s JJ Williams is having the season of his life with 18 goals scored and eight assists as a junior. He’s one of the leading forwards in the nation.

But against Lipscomb Saturday in the biggest stage he’s played on yet, the NCAA Men’s Soccer Tournament Sweet 16 in front of 1,931 fans at The Bell, he struggled and missed two clear chances that would have given the Cats an edge early in each half.

None of that matters. Because his teammates picked him up and scored two goals in the final 15 minutes for a gutty 2-1 victory over the Bisons.

“We’ve got players who can step up in big moments,” Williams said. “I think this is my favorite win of the entire season – not any of the ones where I’m scoring goals. Because it shows how close this team is. It shows how far we can go.”

UK midfielder Bailey Rouse threw himself into a free kick off the right foot of teammate Marcel Meinzer and bodied home a goal that put the Cats ahead. Meinzer took the free kick just outside the right corner of Lipscomb’s 18-yard box and put it perfectly on target toward the far post where it found Rouse’s chest in the 81st minute.

Rouse’s score broke a 1-1 tie that took almost 75 minutes for both teams to create, but they did so in a flourish.

With about 15 minutes left in the second half, a scrum in Lipscomb’s box fell to the foot of UK forward Jason Reyes, who squibbed in a shot past the Bisons’ Chris Zappia. UK’s Meinzer and Nicolai Fremstad each got credit for an assist as they scrambled to get the ball out of a crowd in the center of the box. The team rushed Reyes in celebration over the end line.

But Lipscomb quieted the Cats and their fans almost immediately. Off the ensuing kickoff, a mere 22 seconds after Reyes found the net, Lipscomb’s Logan Paynter equalized off an assist from Ryan Birchfield with a feed from Daniel Muhlbauer.

Lipscomb played like a team that took its last two heavily favored opponents to overtime on the road. The Bisons had recorded three straight shutouts, beating Washington on penalty kicks and Central Florida on an overtime goal in the first two rounds of the tournament

Lipscomb battled UK into overtime at home earlier this season. Though it ended in a 3-2 loss, that match appeared to give the Bisons confidence. The Bisons are 1-2-1 against the Cats in their four meetings.

“Really happy to be sitting here (with a win),” UK Coach Johan Cedergren said after the game. “We have to give Lipscomb a lot of credit. … It’s a tough game every time.”

It was a nervy game for a UK team that had never been so far in the tournament before and for a starting lineup that features nine underclassmen. Kentucky outshot Lipscomb 20-10 with a shots-on-goal margin of 9-1. Zappia recorded seven saves, including five in the first half. Despite the dominance on paper, the game never felt in hand for Kentucky until the final moments.

“Being able to get through a game like tonight with a win, even though we maybe didn’t play at 100 percent, shows how good of a team we have,” Cedergren said. “Now, this week, can we get better?”