SACRAMENTO, Calif. - In the first home Big West Tournament game in program history, Sacramento State took an early lead and scored the only goal of the second half on an Ivan Ramirez penalty kick as the Hornets defeated UC Riverside, 2-1, in the first round of the conference tournament.
The victory was the first Big West Tournament win for the Hornets since joining the conference in 2012. It was also the fifth straight win in postseason home games for Sacramento State (9-8-2), which advances to the semifinals of the Big West Tournament and will play at CSUN at 7 p.m. Wednesday.
"Its always nice to win in a playoff environment and I thought the crowd and environment really helped us today," said head coach Michael Linenberger as his team hosted a postseason game for the first time since beating Santa Clara in the NCAA Tournament at Hornet Field in 2010. "We started to get a little bit fatigued in the second half and I thought the crowd kind of kept us going and we found a little but more energy.
"Being able to host a Big West Tournament game for the first time and to win is great. We've been talking all week about that we can't be satisfied with just hosting a game and that we want to win and move on. We couldn't just be happy to be there; we wanted to make an impact in the tournament."
An electric atmosphere helped get the Hornets off to a great start, and the home team took a 1-0 lead just over nine minutes into the contest. Senior Nate Nugen played a cross through the box from the right of the goal and found Ramirez, who left a touch pass for senior Alex Bettencourt for an open finish and his team-leading seventh goal of the season.
The momentum swung back to UC Riverside in the latter stages of the first half and the Highlanders found an equalizer in the 32nd minute. On a ball just to the left of the Hornet box, Ricardo Ruiz slipped a pass between two defenders and connected with Romario Lomeli, who dribbled to the left post and finished low off of the far post.
Shots were 6-4 in a pretty even first half in which both teams tallied a goal. The Hornets had three corner kicks early in the second half while the Highlanders forced Hornet goalkeeper James Del Curto to make three saves.
In the 77th minute, Bettencourt played a ball in the UCR box that was knocked down and whistled as a hand ball, resulting in a penalty kick. Ramirez, who had successfully converted Sacramento State's only PK attempt of the regular season, fired a shot in to the left side for his fifth goal of the season.
The Highlanders had a few chances to equalize, including a header by Tyler Miguel off a corner kick that Del Curto was able to catch. That shot, in the 81st minute, was the last for UCR as the Hornets were actually closer to scoring a late goal on the counter than the visitors were to tying the score.
That overall shot count ended at 13-9 Hornets while shots on goal were even at 5-5. Bettencourt led all players in the game with four shots and two on goal. Corners were even 6-6, with all six of the Hornet corner kicks coming in the second half.
Sacramento State avenged a 2-0 home loss to UC Riverside (9-10-1) during the regular season. After starting 4-0-1 in conference play the Highlanders lost six straight games to end their season. Their first half goal on Saturday was only their second score in the last six games.
The Hornets advance to face CSUN, the No. 1 seed in the Big West South division. The Matadors earned a bye into the semifinals after going 8-6-4 overall and 5-2-3 in conference games during the regular season. In the lone regular season meeting between Sacramento State and CSUN, the Matadors came away with a 1-0 home win on Oct. 1.
While Saturday's game could have been the last home match for the Hornets this season, the team could potentially host the Big West Championship game next Saturday. If the Hornets win on Wednesday and top-seed UC Santa Barbara is upset, Sacramento State would be the host facing either UC Davis or Cal State Fullerton, who meet in the second game of the first round tonight.