Ryan Knapp celebrates is goal. (Photo courtesy of St. John’s)
QUEENS, N.Y. – Brandon Knapp’s 43rd-minute goal boosted the St. John’s University men to a 1-0 victory over Princeton University in the opening round of the NCAA Division I Tournament on Thursday night.
St. John’s will face top-seeded Oregon State in the second round in Corvallis, Ore. on Sunday at 9 p.m. ET.
Making the program’s 22nd NCAA Tournament appearance under the direction of Dr. David Masur, St. John’s has won at least one game on 14 of those occasions. A win on Sunday would advance the Red Storm to the Round of 16 for the second time in the last three seasons and the 13th overall.
“It was a tough game,” Masur said. “We played Princeton earlier [in the season]. They have a great team. They had won eight in a row. Jimmy [Barlow] is a great coach, and they have some very good players. They’re talented, and we knew it was going to be hard. It was a very aggressive game, particularly in the first half.”
With possession of the ball in the attacking third, Atila Ashrafi attempted to play it out to the left flank. Instead, the pass took an unexpected deflection of the foot of a Princeton defender and found its way to Knapp just inside the 18. The senior captain took a half-turn and whipped a left-footed grounder to the far corner of the net with two minutes remaining in the half.
“I was aware of where the goal was,” Knapp said. “I was also aware of where the two defenders were. … Right away, I thought turn and shoot, located the loose ball and found the bottom corner [of the net].”
It was Knapp’s fifth goal of the season and fourth game-winner. Ashrafi has four assists.
“It’s a difficult thing to get a half-turn and make sure you hit low and hard,” Masur said. “It clicked in my mind that we needed to have somebody there that’s got the quality to finish if we get those opportunities. We hadn’t scored in the last couple of matches against teams that were playing with three in the back, so it becomes a bit more challenging.”
Goalkeeper Luka Gavran made two saves to extend his Division I-best shutout total to 12. The redshirt junior from Hamilton, Ont., moved into a tie with Guy Hertz (2001) for third place on the program’s season shutout list. Only Jason Landers (13, 2006) and Neal Kitson (15, 2008) rank ahead of Gavran.
Gavran, however, credited his backline for the clean sheet.
“We have a great backline,” he said. “We have built a lot of chemistry throughout the season and they have played a big part in my clean sheets. I have to give it up for [Matt] Chandler, Lucas [Bartlett], [Rafael] Bustamante and everyone who has been in the back. We have had to rotate a lot due to injury and everyone deserves the credit.“
St. John’s outshot Princeton, 12-6, including a 4-2 edge in shots on target. In the second half, the Red Storm outshot the visitors, 7-2. The Johnnies also earned nine corner kicks, compared to Princeton’s four.
Princeton recorded the game’s first great scoring chance in the 21st minute, as Malik Pinto sent a shot on target from inside the box that was turned aside by Gavran.
A few minutes later, the Johnnies responded. After a corner kick deflected out of bounds and resulted in another, Matt Chandler headed a ball on target, but defender Stephen Duncan made a tremendous effort to save a goal. Duncan’s clearance attempt found the head of Einar Lye, who sent a less threatening header on cage that was gathered by goalkeeper Jack Roberts.
St. John’s nearly doubled its lead in the 49th minute, as Wesley Leggett headed a ball of the crossbar.
The Red Storm narrowly missed extending its advantage again in the 67th minute, as Nicolas Fleuriau Chateau rocketed a shot that was saved by Roberts before Knapp’s header was deflected away by the last Princeton defender.
In desperate need of an equalizer, Princeton made one last push in the final five minutes. Gavran smothered a bicycle kick from two-time Ivy League offensive player of the year Kevin O’Toole in the 85th before making a composed play to corral a loose ball and neutralize a Princeton threat two minutes later.
Sunday’s match will be the first meeting between St. John’s and the Beavers. The Red Storm has played on the road at a Pac-12 opponent twice in its history, defeating Cal-Berkeley, 3-2, on Nov. 1, 1998, before taking down UCLA, 2-1, in the 2004 NCAA Round of 16.
Asked what he thought about playing the first overall seeded, Knapp replied, “We saw that when the bracket came out, it’s very exciting. Our eyes were on Princeton first, they are a great team and played a great game out there tonight. Now we look forward to a fun game at the top seed. It will be an awesome experience, it’s a great opportunity for us. We have to stay focused over the next few days and go out there and try to get a result.”