Missed Opportunities

UNC-Greensboro keeper Nate Berry guessed right all game. Counterpart Nick Noble guessed left, and UNCG found an open middle – as it often had in the last 30 minutes – to beat sixth-seeded West Virginia 2-1 in double overtime Wednesday.

The scoreboard, reading only the score and 6:21 that would not be played remaining in the NCAA Tournament Round of 32, didn't begin to delve deeply enough into the circumstances or psyche of the upset home loss. It didn't detail the sloppy conditions that helped even play for an inferior away side, didn't display the formational change from a 4-4-2 to a 3-5-2 that, inexplicably, segued into WVU's frustratingly mediocre five-man showing in the overtimes. And it didn't lie, telling the 800-plus in attendance that it would be the Spartans in the round of 16 for a third consecutive season and West Virginia, beaten in the tourney last year by Akron, which would again watch it.

"There was an ebb and flow to the game," UNCG coach Michael Parker said. "There were periods when we got up, and when they got up. We were even for 90 minutes. But we were the better team in overtime."

The Spartans split newly-aligned West Virginia – which made the change with 25 minutes left in the second half to get the tying goal – right up the middle. It outran and outclassed the Mountaineers, using better conditioning to carve a hole in the defensive zone, then forcing the ball to the flanks, crashing from the outside. It was maddeningly simple. And it was effective in conditions that demanded a direct, often long-ball approach.

Greensboro, following WVU defender Chris Wittig's game-tier in the 69th minute, asserted the inside-out attack through the final 20 minutes of regulation and all of the overtimes. Forward Randi Patterson, who put UNCG ahead 1-0 in the 51st minute, beat Whittig down the left sideline and played a cross to defender David Worthern that was drilled just over the crossbar in the 76th minute. With 45 seconds left in regulation, midfielder Scott Jones dribbled by Tony Lindroos and took a point blank shot that Noble saved.

The exchange, repeated in the second overtime when Jones scored the game-winner, energized Greensboro. West Virginia? It seemed lax and tentative, and that play gave way to a side that was, regrettably, fresher in the extra periods. The Mountaineers, with better skill and scoring talent, had their chances. They missed an unheard-of two penalty kicks, the latter from defender Pat Carroll going wide left of an open net after Berry guessed right. Andy Wright was open off a beautiful feed from Ryan Gillespie, but had the ball knocked away by a defender just as his shot, with 2:54 left, was taken.

WVU outplayed UNCG in several stretches and managed edges in shots (22-16), shots on goal (9-6) and corners (6-4). It had the defense beat often, only to have Berry made eight saves, or have a defender drag down a player in the box. But it never converted. Greensboro finally did, with Jones dropping a goal in the middle of the netting by Noble, who had dove to his left and remained there after the goal, his collegiate career and West Virginia's golden run over.

"People don't remember good football; they remember championships," WVU coach Marlon LeBlanc has said. If that's true, what they will remember from this season isn't what's most worth remembering.

The Mountaineers (15-3-3) had one of their finest teams in history. West Virginia failed to lose consecutive games until the bitter end, when two straight double-overtime losses cost it the Big East championship and another home NCAA game. It plied its best season ever with a coach hired 13 days before its start. It rode arguably the finest keeper in the Big East – and inarguably the finest in school history – to 15 wins and a top five ranking for multiple weeks. And it became, in the process, one of the great stories of the 2006 season.

But the close leaves a rotten taste, the UNCG (15-8-1) upset making the Mountaineers all the moreso because of missed chances in games that don't often come around

"It's very unlikely that you miss two penalty kicks," Whittig said. "But it happens." Offered Leblanc: "We had big goals and we didn't make it. That's the bottom line. But it is a teachable moment. Part of the game is accepting what you did wrong and learning from it."

As punch-to-the-gut painful as it is.

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