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Charlotte Observer: 49ers Stun UConn, Continue Dream Run

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Charlotte's Charles Rodriguez celebrates after scoring the game-winning penalty kick. Steve McLaughlin

STORRS, Conn. This is beginning to get serious. The unseeded Charlotte 49ers' improbable run through the NCAA men's soccer tournament continued Sunday when they rallied late in the quarterfinal game to tie third-seed Connecticut 1-1, then advanced to this week's College Cup by outscoring the Huskies 4-2 in a penalty-kick shootout. The 49ers (16-4-3) face second-seed Creighton (21-2) in a national semifinal at 6 p.m. Friday in Hoover, Ala., on ESPNU. The other semifinal has top-seed North Carolina (20-2-2) facing 13th-seed UCLA (18-4-1) at 8:30. Charlotte's Charles Rodriguez celebrates after scoring the game-winning penalty kick. Photo: Steve McLaughlin "This means a lot," said 49ers senior defender Charles Rodriguez, whose penalty kick clinched it for Charlotte. "We're going to enjoy this on the plane trip back. It will be the most fun plane trip I've ever been on." Thanks to a late goal by breakout freshman star Giuseppe Gentile, a surprising appearance in the shootout by a backup goalkeeper Gavin Dawson and a rock-solid defensive performance through 90 minutes of regulation and two 10-minute overtimes, Charlotte is making its second trip to the College Cup in school history. The 49ers got there in 1996, falling in the semifinals to Florida International. In a gripping game played before a sellout crowd of 5,100 at UConn's Morrone Stadium, the 49ers were eight minutes away from their season ending when the Huskies' Tony Cascio scored on a breakaway at the game's 81 minute, 13 second mark. "That," said UConn coach Ray Reid, "should have been it." But three minutes later, the 49ers found themselves with a free kick from midfield. In an ill-guided attempt to kill time, UConn's Mamadou Diouf stood closer than the allowable 10 yards to the ball. He received a yellow card from referee Misail Tsapos for the transgression, and that also stopped the clock. Charlotte's Aaron Weldon took the extra time to better line up the long free kick, and he lofted it into the penalty box to the goal's far post, where 49ers midfielder Tyler Gibson headed it back in front of the goal. Gentile, who played at Ardrey Kell High and is the Atlantic 10's rookie of the year, got to the ball first and he banged it past Huskies goalie Andre Blake for his 10th goal of the season. It was a reward for a long afternoon of running and pressure for Gentile, who tangled with burly UConn defender Andre Jeanbaptiste - all 6-foot-2, 205 pounds of him - for much of the game. "You can't let him push you around, even if he's 15 pounds heavier and I'm younger," said Gentile. "I'm not going to back down." Gentile's goal sent the game into overtime. When no more goals were scored after 20 extra minutes, it went to a best-of-five shootout. Although starting goalkeeper Klay Davis has played all but two minutes of Charlotte's season, coach Jeremy Gunn brought in Dawson - who has a knack at stopping penalty kicks - for the shootout. The shootout wasn't close - and Dawson didn't have to make a save. Charlotte's Tyler Gibson, Donnie Smith and Isaac Cowles made theirs (Evan James missed) through four attempts. UConn's Diouf (crossbar) and Michael Mercado (wide right) missed, but the Huskies' Carlos Alvarez and Colin Bradley both converted. That left it for Rodriguez to take the fifth penalty. He calmly pushed it past Blake, sending Charlotte to college soccer's version of the Final Four. "I knew if I made it, we'd win," said Rodriguez. "It's something we've practiced all week, and really, since July." It was the third consecutive season that UConn, a college soccer blueblood that's won three national championships, had its season end in the NCAA tournament on penalty kicks. "We had that game," said Reid. "It's unconscionable for us to be up a goal with eight minutes left and blow it." OBSERVATIONS Connecticut won the most recent of its three NCAA championships in 2000 - in Charlotte. The College Cup was played in Bank of America Stadium in 1999 and 2000. Davidson also hosted the event from 1992-94. UConn's Nickardo Blake was probably lucky he wasn't red-carded in the second half when he apparently punched Charlotte's Robby Thomas (who had stepped on Blake while they were jostling for position before a free kick). Blake and Thomas were both spoken to by referee Misail Tsapos and that was it. Thomas also lost his right shoe for a few minutes into the first half and actually had to play the ball a few times in just his socks. Both teams had excellent chances to score earlier in the game. Charlotte's Thomas had a blistering 30-yarder turned over the crossbar by UConn goalkeeper Andre Blake in the first half. The Huskies' Tony Cascio hit the post, also in the first half. Copyright 2011 The Charlotte Observer. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.