DURHAM -- There was no doubt that the University of New Hampshire men’s soccer team was in control from the onset of Thursday night’s opening-round game of the NCAA Division I tournament against Fairleigh Dickinson. The problem was that there was nothing on the scoreboard to show for it.
Freshman Bilal Kamal finally ended the frustration.
Kamal dribbled his way through four defenders to beat Fairleigh Dickinson goalie Jahmali White with 14:49 left in regulation to break the scoreless tie, and the 16th-ranked Wildcats held on the rest of the way for a 1-0 victory at Wildcat Stadium.
“We knew FDU would be a really tough opponent to play," said UNH coach Marc Hubbard. "They did a great job of closing space defensively, managing the game and certainly frustrating us. I was happy for our guys to finally break through. It was definitely a frustrating game. The guys stayed true to who we are and kept moving and kept believing.”
This was the third straight appearance in the tournament for the America East champion Wildcats and fourth overall. UNH won a pair of games to reach the round of 16 in 2017, while it lost to Colgate in the first round last year. The Wildcats’ first tournament bid came in 1994.
“It was definitely frustrating. We went into halftime not down, but expecting more,” said UNH captain and defender Josh Bauer, of Bedford. “That’s how these NCAA tournament games are. Teams might just sit on us. It’s just about resiliency and keep going and the next play mentality. We were able to keep our heads for the most part. It was a great individual effort by Bilal, and we came out on top.”
UNH (15-1-3) looks to earn the program’s fourth tournament win when it visits 10th seeded Virginia Tech (9-5-3) in the second round on Sunday at 4 p.m. The 23rd-ranked Hokies received a first-round bye.
UNH controlled possession from the beginning but failed to get a shot on goal until Waite stopped shots by Alan Kehoe and James Thomas around the 15-minute mark. The Wildcats continued to chip deeper into the Knights’ zone and put together their most dangerous opportunities in the final two minutes.
Shortly after Bauer missed a shot wide, Kamal’s close laser from the left was stopped by Waite (six saves). Antonio Colacci had took an open shot from 30 yards out, but the ball sailed inches over the right corner of the net with one minute left in the half to keep the game scoreless.
The Wildcats had 14 shots (three on goal) in the first half compared with two for Fairleigh Dickinson, and also had a 5-0 advantage in corner kicks.
It was more of the same for UNH in the second half, as a rocket from 30 yards out by Jacob Mannix was stonewalled by Waite, while a Thomas cross narrowly missed the head of Kamal in front of the net with 27 minutes left in regulation.
Waite then stopped a Thomas shot, but Brandon Garland’s rebound hit the post. A charging Kamal put the ball over the net with 25:45 left in the second half.
“It came at me really quickly, but I still think I should be able to get that goal,” Kamal. “It was a split second at the ball and I just missed wide.”
Kamal redeemed himself in a big way 10 minutes later for his third goal of the season.
“I started dribbling in and then I saw a space open,” Kamal. “I faked a shot with my left foot, then it was a blur; I couldn’t remember. I tried to get it with my right foot because it was so tight. Then it went it. It was a great moment.”
Kamal has carved out his niche coming off the bench to provide UNH with a spark. He also scored in UNH’s 3-0 victory over UMass Lowell in the America East semifinals.
“I think the guys that we inserted in the first half did a great job of adding to it, moving the ball quicker and finding good pockets to play,” Hubbard said. “Bilal is a great player who can find those pockets and turn in a tight area. You can obviously see that if you’ve watched him throughout the year.”
Fairleigh Dickinson (7-9-4) went 55 minutes between shots on goal until UNH goalie Alejandro Robles (four saves) stopped a Diego Arribas shot with 17 minutes remaining, and then Robles saved an Arribas header with 1:34 left.
The Knights grabbed an automatic bid to the tournament with a 3-2 win on penalty kicks over Long Island University to win the Northeast Conference championship.
“We came up here and though we gave our heart and soul to this game,” Fairleigh Dickinson coach Seth Roland said. “We played in a way they can be proud of.”
Now UNH will travel to face a Virginia Tech team that lost on penalty corners in the ACC championship game.
“Playing on the road has been big for us and it has been big in us building confidence in early parts of the season,” Hubbard said. “I think we have belief to go to an ACC level. Those are the programs we want to compete with and put UNH on the map nationally.”