Virginia tops Rider in NCAA opener, 2-0

Salandy-Defour, Rozhansky tally second-half goals for defending champs

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Redshirt junior forward Marcus Salandy-Defour scored in the 68th minute Thursday night to put Virginia ahead 1-0. 

Paul Burke | Cavalier Daily

Following an 11-day hiatus after their exit from the ACC tournament at the hands of Notre Dame, the unseeded Cavaliers welcomed MAAC Champion Rider University — a team they have played just once in history — to Klöckner Stadium on Thursday night in their first NCAA tournament game defending last season’s College Cup title.

In typical Virginia (10-4-3, 4-2-2 ACC) fashion, they started off slow, but picked up their play in the second half. Overcoming a pesky Broncs (14-6-1, 6-3-1 MAAC) team, the Cavaliers tallied two second-half goals to take down Rider and advance to the second round in their 35th-straight NCAA tournament.

“This was a little bit of a grind,” coach George Gelnovatch said, “and we’ve just got to get used to it.”

Gelnovatch, as he has had to do all season, tweaked his starting XI for the first-round matchup, playing numerous players in positions they had not seen thus far, as a strategic tactic to generate more offense as well as put more experienced players in positions to succeed. Redshirt junior Marcus Salandy-Defour was at his natural attacking position, senior defender Scott Thomsen was back from injury and junior midfielder Riggs Lennon took over on the left flank.

“Practice is way different than a game,” Salandy-Defour said, “and we had practiced that [formation] for 10 days before because we had off, had a nice little break, and we were practicing like that, but we definitely needed a half to adjust.”

This reorganization led to some discontinuity in the first half, as Virginia struggled with the much weaker Rider side. Although even 0-0 after 45 minutes, the Cavaliers were not able to play the sort of fast-paced, open game they might have desired. After the break, however, all that changed.

“Before the game [this season] we talk about coming into halftime either tied or up a goal and today we were adamant about being up a goal at half,” senior midfielder Todd Wharton said, “so we were kind of forcing it…and we just didn’t get them, but we didn’t panic, and ended up getting two in the end.”

The Cavaliers’ first clear chances came, one after another, just minutes into the second half. Off a through ball from sophomore midfielder Jake Rozhansky, Salandy-Defour was able to poke a shot through senior goalkeeper Ryan Baird’s legs only to see it go just wide.

Minutes later, freshman forward Edward Opoku — as he has time and again this season — beat the keeper in a one-on-one, emerging alone in front of an open goal. Unfortunately, the star freshman wasn’t able to secure his first career postseason goal as a Rider defender lunged in front of goal to block the shot.

Salandy-Defour made up for his miss in the 68th minute, when he collected a pass from Rozhansky at the top of the box, and — facing away from the goal — took a touch, turned and fired a blast into the upper-90, past the outstretched Baird, to put the Cavaliers ahead 1-0.

“I was just thinking turn and shoot,” Salandy-Defour said. “You never want to miss chances, the one before it was definitely the easier chance, so I felt like I had to score. I thought I hit it pretty well, but didn’t know it was going in.”

On the Cavaliers next opportunity — no more than 30 seconds later — he was free in front of goal once again, but was denied this time by Baird. His goal, however, was a spark for a Virginia team in dire need of it. Playing a much weaker out-of-conference opponent, the Cavaliers could not afford to let them hang around, as an upset-minded underdog is most dangerous within striking distance.

“With a team like that, that’s never going to quit,” Wharton said, “they had a lot of confidence as the game went on, with it being 0-0, so to get that goal and deflate them a little bit allowed us to step back a little bit into our game.”

Virginia had an opportunity to double the lead in the 72nd minute, when a Lennon header induced a Rider handball. Unfortunately for the Cavaliers, Wharton’s penalty kick attempt was skillfully parried, and Virginia had to continue to defend its precarious lead.

“Should’ve scored that,” Wharton said. “The guy made a really good save. I second-guessed myself a little bit, I was going to go the other way and then at the last second switched, and I could have put a little more power on it but he made a really good save.”

With just over two minutes remaining — and the Broncs pressing high up the field in an effort to equalize — Rozhansky combined with freshman midfielder Derrick Etienne to set himself up beautifully on the left side of the box, where he beat Baird and knocked in a left-footed strike to double the Cavalier lead and ensure they would live to see the second round of the tournament.

“Coming on in the second half I was very hungry, I wanted to score,” Rozhansky said, “I wanted to help the team win. Edward got the ball on the last side and I just saw a huge gap…because they were pressing. Edward switched the ball to [freshman midfielder Jean-Christophe] Koffi and I just burst through the middle, ended up going around the keeper and scoring.”

The Cavaliers now have just two days of rest before traveling to College Park to take on their rival, the 10th-seeded Maryland Terrapins, who knocked off Ohio State to win the Big 10 and had a first-round NCAA tournament bye.

“They are going to be some rowdy fans, it’s going to be loud, it’s going to be crazy,” Wharton said. “I love those games because it gets me more pumped up and we’ll let the younger guys know what it’s like and they’ll be ready for it too.”

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