Blais
USF

TAMPA -- Chris Blais guessed right and sent South Florida to the NCAA quarterfinal on Sunday night.

Blais’ save on the final penalty kick of a shootout helped USF knock off New Mexico.

“Big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games,” Aubrey Perry said, who scored USF’s second goal of the shootout.

Santi Alexis entered the game for the first time before Blais’ final save and delivered the eventual game-winner by beating keeper Victor Rodriguez to his right. USF outscored New Mexico, 6-5, in the shootout.

“He’s always a top guy in the PKs,” head coach George Kiefer said. “He’s really good.”

That put the pressure on New Mexico’s Carson Baldinger, who fired a low shot to his left that Blais knocked away to send the Bulls to the NCAA quarterfinals against Creighton, which beat UC-Santa Barbara, 2-1, on Sunday.

New Mexico was unbeaten in 21 games before its matchup with the Bulls Sunday.

“I tried to keep my ground as long as I could, so he didn’t know which way I was going,” Blais said. “I went the right way and when I saw the ball leave his foot I knew I was going to save it. Those are the feelings you work really hard for in college.”

USF (13-3-4) seized the momentum of the game well before the shootout took place.

The Bulls had the Lobos on the ropes in the first half and came close to pulling ahead twice. Dom Dwyer had four shots, including a header that went wide right and a diving kick that hit Rodriguez at close range.

The Bulls outshot New Mexico 5-2 in the opening half and had the only shot on goal (Dwyer) while controlling the ball the majority of the time.

The second half served as a similar result with USF holding a 5-4 shot advantage. Dwyer had a wide-open look at the net, but missed a diving kick attempt with about 2 minutes left in regulation.

Blais had two saves in the second half and came up with a key diving stop following a defensive miscue in the 72nd minute.

New Mexico’s offense got going in the first overtime and almost scored twice in the final moments. Blais tipped a hot shot by James Rogers with about 30 seconds left. A header by Kyle Venter went over the net just seconds before time expired in the period.

Rogers almost had the game-winner for New Mexico with 5 minutes left in the second overtime period, but his cross drifted a few feet left of the net.

“The way we played, there was no way we were going to lose that game,” Perry said.

The senior anchor on the Bulls’ back line was correct after a marathon of penalty kicks.

Lucas Baldin put USF ahead, 1-0, and New Mexico answered with a goal to the top right of the net by Lance Rozeboom. Perry followed with a score, the Lobos’ Michael Green answered and Dwyer missed the first shot of the shootout when he was blocked by Rodriguez to his right.

“The beauty for being a shooter for USF is you know Blais is going to make a save or two,” Kiefer said. “It takes a lot of pressure off you.”

That’s when Blais made big stop No. 1 of the shootout when he turned away Blake Smith.

“We knew we were going to win in the shootout,” Blais said. “Having the whole school behind you is really an amazing feeling.”

Ashani Fairclough put the Bulls back ahead, 3-2, and Devon Sandoval tied it up with a strike to his right.

Leston Paul and Kevin Olali each put a shot in the back of the net and New Mexico countered with goals by Kyle Venter and Matthew Gibbons.

That set the stage for Alexis, who stepped onto the field for the first time with the game on the line. The senior midfielder was cold, but very effective when he beat Rodriguez to his right for the decisive score.

“That kind of speaks to the depth we have on this team. Everybody is involved,” Perry said. “You never know when someone is going to get a chance to do something great and Santi took his chance.”

Blais’ stop sealed USF’s first shootout since 2008 and sent the Bulls to the NCAA quarterfinals for the first time since 2008.

“I love shootouts with the home crowd. It can’t get any better than that,” Blais said.

USF will face Creighton, Saturday in Omaha, Neb., for a chance to get to the NCAA semifinal.