For all the accomplishments the Charlotte 49ers have racked up over their recent history, there’s one that they haven’t quite been able to achieve in quite a while.
Conference tournament champions.
Yet, on Sunday, the Niners will have a chance to win the Conference USA crown–on their home turf–and clinch the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament with a victory against the defending champion Tulsa Golden Hurricane.
The Niners are winners of their last seven, beginning with a 1-0 victory over Kentucky on October 19. Ironically, win number seven on Friday (in the conference semifinals) was by that same exact score against the same exact team.
But the irony doesn’t end there. The last team to beat them? Tulsa, in a 3-2 overtime win on October 13. Cristian Mata would score early in the first extra session to end the contest.
That appeared to have been the turning point for the Niners, in danger of missing out on the league’s seven-team tournament altogether. They beat their final four league opponents (as well as then #14 Clemson), followed by wins over third-seeded UAB and seventh-seeded Kentucky this week. Number eight would equal an automatic bid to their ninth NCAA Tournament.
Charlotte is all but guaranteed a spot in the 48-team field despite the result, but winning the C-USA title to dispel any inkling of a doubt would make it that much more special. Only one time–1983 in the old Sun Belt Conference–have they picked up an automatic NCAA bid in an actual conference tournament setting. Twice, in 1992 and 1994, they won the Metro Conference’s auto bid, but that was by virtue of having the best conference record.
Road to the Final
(6) Charlotte 49ers
Quarterfinals: Def. (3) UAB, 2-1 | Goals: CHA–Giuseppe Gentile (21′, 37′); UAB–Charlotte own goal (48′)
Semifinals: Def: (7) Kentucky 1-0 | Goals: CHA–Brandt Bronico (40′)
(5) Tulsa Golden Hurricane
Quarterfinals: Def. (4) South Carolina 3-1 | Goals: TUL–SC own goal (49′), Abe Matamoros (54′), Akeil Barrett (89′); SC–J.P. Rafferty (9′)
Semifinals: Def. (1) New Mexico 3-0 | Goals: TUL–Quinton Duncan (23′), Tony Rocha (25′); Omar Mata (50′)
Weather: Cloudy, 66 at match time; 67 and remaining cloudy at halftime; staying at 67 for the remainder of the match; 30% chance of showers.