IU soccer rolls past Kentucky, 3-0

Victor Bezerra said Indiana had its best week of practice all season leading up to Sunday’s second-round NCAA Tournament match at Armstrong Stadium.

That practice made Bezerra nearly perfect, as the freshman forward became just the third player in IU soccer history to record a hat trick in an NCAA game, propelling the fifth-seeded and sixth-ranked Hoosiers to a 3-0 win over Kentucky. Indiana will now host No. 22 UC-Santa Barbara in a third-round match next Sunday at Armstrong Stadium.

“I’d like to thank my teammates for putting me in those positions,” Bezerra said. “It’s something that I train a lot, finishing, and I was able to help the team out today with three goals, and I’ll continue to do everything I can to help the team.”

He couldn’t do much more as he joined Nikita Kotlov in 2012 (vs. Xavier) and Scott Merritt in 1996 (vs. Evansville) as Hoosiers with a postseason hat trick, but Bezerra is the only one who did it as a freshman.

“I wish I could’ve seen that one coming,” IU coach Todd Yeagley said. “I would’ve felt a little better heading into the game if I knew Vic had three in him.”

The first was the most important, however, as Indiana (15-2-4) snapped a scoreless streak of 237 minutes and 56 seconds against Kentucky dating back to the 2017 meeting and including a scoreless draw six weeks ago.

The icebreaker came as Aidan Morris played A.J. Palazzolo behind the defense, and the offsides flag stayed down. Alone on the right flank, Palazzolo picked out Bezerra racing into the middle of the box, where he took a touch and blasted a shot into the lower right corner for a 1-0 lead in the 21st minute. It was the first shot of the game by either team.

“I thought we grew up a lot (since the first game),” Yeagley said. “That’s a more mature Aidan and Joe (Schmidt). I thought our center midfield was really good. You saw (Daniel) Munie before he went out, his growth. Simon (Waever) and Spencer (Glass), really the tactical approach they were locked in on in today’s game that they weren’t the first game, and that was partly on us as a staff.

“… We’re a better team than we were when we played them. This was a much more complete performance. We just looked older and more mature, and it’s only been a month or so.”

With a goal in hand, Bezerra and the Indiana offense only increased the pressure on the weary Wildcats (13-5-3), who won their NCAA opener in double overtime on Thursday night.

In the 30th minute, Bezerra doubled his scoring total when Morris played Waever along the right side, and the Evansville transfer found his freshman counterpart at the near post for a one-time finish.

The usually reserved Bezerra couldn’t hide his enthusiasm.

“We had something to lose,” the Chicago native said. “We don’t want the season to end, we want to keep going. We know this is a special group, and we knew that if we get our first goal, confidence comes, the ability to make plays comes quicker, people moving off the ball, positivity starts going in our heads.

“As soon as we got our first goal, we wanted more. We knew that one goal wasn’t good enough, and our movement off the ball was superior to the last game (against Kentucky).”

With the offense humming, the defense made sure it would stand up by recording its fifth straight shutout.

There were really only two close calls. The first was a shot from distance by Robert Screen that deflected off Indiana goalkeeper Roman Celentano, then the right post and back off Celentano again late in the first half.

The second was a ball in front early in the second half that forced Celentano into a couple of desperate fingertip saves before Munie cleared the ball off the line.

“I told the team, three goals, it looks great, (and) the optics are we played really well offensively, which we did for a good portion, but I thought our team defense was fantastic,” Yeagley said. “We gave Kentucky very little. Many of their better chances were after our giveaways. To be able to defend like that this time of year is a formula that gives you the best chance to advance.”

With that danger averted, Bezerra got back to work in the 63rd minute. Schmidt made a steal at midfield and fed the ball to Bezerra on the left flank.

The freshman took a couple touches, cut to the right and unleashed a right-footed laser into the upper right corner to make it 3-0.

“I like cutting in on my right foot,” Bezerra said. “I know once I cut in and find an opportunity to shoot, good things happen from it, whether that be a rebound, near post, back post, it’s something I like to do. Joe Schmidt found me, again execution of a pass, a good quick dribble and putting it on target. Everything comes down to execution, and we’re executing better than before.”

Just like in practice.