An audible groan greeted the announcement that yesterday's NCAA Tournament Second Round game between the Harvard women's soccer team and George Mason would go to sudden-death overtime.
The 787 Crimson fans who flocked to Ohiri Field had not forgotten last season's heartbreaking loss to UMass on an unfortunate own-goal in the same situation.
All that was forgotten 12 minutes later, however, as junior Naomi Miller tapped in freshman Erin Aeschlimann's spinning shot to seal a 2-1 victory and send the home fans into a frenzy.
"A lot of it was Ashley Berman," Miller said. "She did a great job bringing it down the line and beating her man and cutting the ball back to [Aeschlimann]."
Berman, a right-sided midfielder, caused problems for the opposing defense throughout the game with her well-timed runs down the flanks, but she--like the rest of the Harvard team--could not shake a very determined George Mason squad.
"They played with a lot of heart and a lot of spirit," said Harvard Coach Tim Wheaton.
The 25th-ranked Patriots (14-6-4) had upset on their minds as they traveled to Cambridge, fresh off a 2-1 win over eighth seed Maryland last week.
George Mason Coach Jac Cicala instructed his players to turn up the heat on Harvard (13-3-2) early, and they responded, pinning the Crimson back in its own half for the first 10 minutes of the game.
The pressure abated quickly once the Crimson settled in, and in the 13th minute, the home team squandered the first of many chances it would have to take control of the match.
First, Gina Foster's corner kick skittered dangerously across the goalmouth but nobody was there to finish for Harvard. Then, a poor clearance by a George Mason defender allowed Harvard to bang a shot off the far post. The ensuing rebound fell to a Crimson player who could do no better than to blast it over the endline for a goal kick.
There was more of the same soon after as a pinpoint pass from midfielder Keren Gudeman found Miller racing away from a George Mason defender, but goalkeeper Jamie Pagliarulo came off her line quickly to snuff out the opportunity.
It was Pagliarulo's solid play in the goal which allowed George Mason to escape the first half with the score still knotted at 0-0, but credit must go to the defense as well.
Just before halftime, a rocket off Miller's foot from about 18 yards out was cleared off the line by a George Mason defender to keep the game scoreless.
The Patriots' grit was rewarded in the 48th minute when their all-time leading scorer Jenn Gross slammed the ball into the net after a brief scramble in front of the goal to put her team ahead, 1-0. Harvard goalkeeper Anne Browning had no chance to stop Gross' shot as midfielder Keri Nelson's high, bouncing pass caught the Harvard defense napping.
The Crimson came back with a vengeance, though, and just a minute later, forward Lindsay Minkus headed home Foster's inswinging corner kick to equalize.
Energized by the goal, the Crimson controlled play for long stretches of the second half, but their intensity and persistence went unrewarded.
In fact the Crimson nearly let the game get away with seconds remaining in regulation. Gross once again took advantage of a Harvard defensive lapse to take off on a breakaway which left her one-on-one with Browning. Browning, who only recently wrested the starting job from junior Jen Burney, saved the day, rushing out to knock the ball away form Gross and preserve the tie-game. In the process, however, she sustained an injury which knocked her out of the game.
Browning's exit to resounding sympathetic applause highlighted her top notch performance in goal and instilled a new sense of purpose in the Crimson.
"The kids were inspired. They just wanted to step up and do it for her," Wheaton said.
Still, George Mason hung tough, and the first two overtime periods passed without a goal.
Harvard's attacking spirit nearly triumphed in the 124th minute, when Ivy League Player of the Year Miller sprinted past the last George Mason defender with the ball at her feet, only to be taken down roughly as she bore down on Pagliarulo before she could even get a shot off.
The crowd appealed for a penalty kick, but referee Reta Brown continued to pursue her laissez-faire policy and refused to blow the whistle.
"A defender kicked my ankle from behind," Miller said. "I didn't think she was going to call it though."
It made no difference, of course, as seven minutes later, Berman found herself with the ball in the corner staring at an unmarked Erin Aeschlimann, who took the shot which Miller finished so easily.
The victory, Harvard's first-ever Sweet Sixteen success, sets up a nightmare matchup against top-ranked North Carolina, 13-time national champion, at Chapel Hill. The Tarheels (22-0-1), who field several of the nation's best young players, have beaten their first two tournament opponents by a combined 11-0. Wheaton remains upbeat, though.
"We can give anybody a game on any given day," he said.
The Crimson might do well just to stay in the game on Saturday, but for now, its players are proud of their best-ever NCAA Tournament performance.
"We have absolutely nothing to lose," Miller said.CrimsonDavid S. TangCAROLINA BOUND: Sophomore ASHLEY BERMAN attempts to protect the ball from a flailing George Mason player.