CLEMSON, SC – Conference rules prohibited the alma mater being played over the loudspeakers after Clemson’s 2-1 win over North Carolina in the ACC Men’s Soccer Tournament Quarterfinals on Tuesday night.
That didn’t stop the Tigers from locking arms and belting it out loud and clear along with the hearty souls who stuck around for the entirety of their thrilling comeback on a blustery, frigid night at Historic Riggs Field.
After 75 frustrating minutes, with Clemson trailing 1-0 for more than 74 of them, T.J. Casner drove home an emphatic volley after a superb passage of play to pull his side level.
Eight minutes later, Kyle Fisher rose above the crowd on a corner kick with a robust header to score the winner and punch the Tigers’ collective ticket to Germantown, MD, for the semifinals of the conference tournament.
“We just kind of came together as a team and really just went at them,” Casner said. “And together we got two goals. It was a whole team effort.”
The Tigers (11-6-2) found themselves down after just 29 seconds, as North Carolina scored on virtually the first possession through junior forward Cooper Vandermaas-Peeler, who made a nifty run through the Clemson half and blasted a left-footed shot past a diving Andrew Tarbell for a 1-0 lead.
Clemson largely controlled the rest of the first-half play, but still went into halftime trailing after just missing on a handful of solid scoring chances.
“I thought we were a little bit too excited to start the game,” Tiger head coach Mike Noonan said, “and I thought we went over that emotional bell curve, where you get your emotion up to a point where you’re excited about the game, but I think we got (too anxious) – the ball was bouncing off our foot left and right. It was a very poor start to the game.”
But substitute Thales Moreno helped to steady the ship by creating scoring chances on either side of the halftime interval, and by the time Casner powered his volley into the back of the net, the Tigers were clearly deserving of being even.
“The second half, it would’ve been cruel if we hadn’t scored,” Noonan said. “I don’t think they got in our penalty area in the second half.”
The Tigers finally tied it up smack on the 75:00 mark, as Manolo Sanchez passed to Ara Amirkhanian, who nodded the ball down from the left side of the box to Casner, who blasted a right-footed volley home from close range to even the game at 1-1.
“It was a terrific delivery from Manolo to Ara, and Ara made a really good decision,” Noonan said. “A lot of forwards will try to head that on goal, and he just laid it right back to T.J., who finished it exceptionally well.”
From there, Noonan said the only question in his mind was whether his team had left itself enough time in regulation to score the game-winner.
With 8:03 remaining, Clemson won a corner kick, and Fisher answered his coach’s question emphatically, as he rose above a horde at the edge of the six-yard box and headed Thomas McNamara‘s corner into the back of the net.
“It was a great ball by Tommy,” Fisher said. “I was just very happy to get on the end of it and put us ahead. And from then, we had to move on to the next play and make sure we closed out the game well.”
The goal was reminiscent of the sophomore’s first career goal, which came in a 2-0 win over USC Upstate in September, when he also rose high to head home a corner.
The two goals may have appeared similar, but this one clearly carried much greater significance.
“Kyle’s got some special qualities, not just his technical ability heading the ball, but he’s got some special qualities when it comes to being a young man – and those showed up tonight,” Noonan said. “He’s a tough kid, and he’s got a desire and a willingness that are hard to come by. The intangibles that Kyle Fisher brings to the game are terrific.”
Clemson finished the regular season 5-4-2 in ACC play, but knew it could use a win over the Tar Heels, who were ranked as high as 15th in this week’s polls, to bolster its NCAA tournament hopes.
“This was basically a do-or-die match, and we put everything towards it,” Casner said. “Since the spring season this is what we’ve been working for, and it just feels so good to have it all come together and get another shot at Maryland in the semifinals.”
The reigning ACC champion Terrapins, the tournament’s top seed, advanced to the semifinals with a 2-0 victory over Boston College on Tuesday night.
Clemson fell to Maryland 3-1 on Sept. 21 at Riggs Field, but played the Terrapins and reigning Hermann Trophy winner Patrick Mullins tough, only to be undone by a few lapses in concentration defensively.
After Tuesday’s victory – the Tigers’ first come-from-behind win of the season – they agreed it was the kind of performance that could provide momentum moving forward.
“It’s hard to put it in words. It’s one of the best moments since I’ve been at Clemson,” Fisher said. “It was a great team win.”
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