Russell Cicerone has rescued the UB Bulls so many times in his four years that last-minute heroics become almost expected.
With his side desperately pressing for a goal in the 90th minute, the University at Buffalo Bulls' talisman skied over Western Michigan defender Alex Ruddock to meet Alec Fisher's cross, then nodded a bouncing header past diving goalkeeper Drew Shepherd to level the match at 1. The Bulls and Broncos played through two scoreless overtime periods, with both adding a point to their Mid-American Conference total.
"All my life I've loved playing in big moments," explained Cicerone following the match. "I love being the guy who's under the pressure to help his team win. When we go down like that and I see my boys drooping their heads a little bit, I just fire them back up. I don't want to lose so bad, my mentality is that I'm not going to allow my team to lose."
UB head coach Stu Riddle tried to put his star player's innate ability to perform in meaningful moments into words.
"It didn't look like it was going to be his night," Riddle said. "I thought he was quiet for his own high standards. I've referenced it as the X-factor - he has the ability to do things other guys don't - and I think a lot of guys would have been feeling sorry for themselves at that point [in the match].
"As he's done his whole career here, he's saved us at the last gasp."
With his goal, Cicerone became the second player in UB history to eclipse the 100-point mark in his career. The Michigan native is now 14 points behind the program's all-time leading scorer, Steve Butcher, with three matches and the potential for postseason remaining.
UB (1-1-1) leaves its third MAC game with a total of four points - and typically six or seven points are enough to finish in the conference's top four. A win against Northern Illinois at 7 p.m. Oct. 28 in UB Stadium would all but seal the Bulls' place in the postseason.
— Buffalo News Soccer (@BN_Soccer) October 22, 2016
RIDDLE NOT SATISFIED: Although the dramatic draw had its perks for fans, Riddle was displeased with much of UB's performance.
"I thought Western Michigan outworked us, out-competed us and looked more interested for large stretches of the match, said Riddle flatly. "That isn't good enough when you're playing a conference match at home.
Western boasted a 12-8 edge in shots, but it was the Bulls' sloppiness in possession - perhaps worsened by inclement weather - and inability to consistently win tackles that put UB on its heels.
WEATHERING AN EARLY STORM: The Broncos stormed out of the gate, generating three quality chances in the game's first 11 minutes.
Under two minutes in, Western winger Diego Lopez found himself free behind the Bulls' back four, but his well-hit volley thudded off the leg of Bulls goalkeeper Joseph Kuta - who'd burst off his line to narrow the angle - and away from danger.
Five minutes later, Broncos leading scorer Brandon Bye nearly punished more loose marking by UB's defensive unit, but he couldn't direct his shot on frame. In the 11th, Fisher blocked Bye's shot in isolation, then Kuta snared a line drive from Western's Edu Jimenez.
"We were very lucky, I think," Riddle admitted. "There was a good save from Joseph, and the boy put one past the far post that he probably should have scored. We weren't mentally ready."
It looked like the Bulls were almost certainly in a hole when Western broke out on a counter attack. Anthony Bowie jetted down the right wing, eluding defenders on a cut inside before passing the ball against the grain to Bronco center back Zach Bock, who'd opportunistically joined the rush. Bock rounded Kuta with his first touch, but couldn't quite reach his foot around the second to score from a bad angle.
While Chad Wiseman's visiting squad should have been comfortably in front, the Broncos finally broke the scoreless deadlock on Anthony Bowie's persistence in the 66th minute after a crafty flick-on header from Jimenez. The goalscorer might have used his arm to disengage Bulls defender Austin Place, but his physicality was enough to fool both Place and Kuta on the play, and there was no whistle to bail out the Bulls. You be the judge, below.
Video of Western goal - looked like Bowie got away with slight push, not sure it was obvious foul though. pic.twitter.com/Z2QJ7UhGZi
— Buffalo News Soccer (@BN_Soccer) October 22, 2016
USING HIS NOGGIN: The improvement in Cicerone's aerial ability between his junior and senior seasons was unmistakable - he's even more of a terror to mark when defenders know that not only can he go around them, but he can go over.
"Over the summer I put a lot of effort into working on finishing with my head and off crosses, because I've always been decent at scoring in the run of play, but crossing and finishing I really worked on over the summer," the goalscorer said. "Getting stronger helps to fend guys off in the air. Just putting in the repetitions got me better."
For Riddle, then, there's even more of an emphasis on serving more balls into the box - a skill Braden Scales and Alec Fisher have excelled at in the past but was largely absent Friday night - at least until the late leveler.
"It's funny. We said at halftime that we got two good goals last week from putting balls into the box, and I don't understand the reluctance at times why we don't do that more often," Riddle mused. "When we got another good ball into the box, we got a goal from it, so hopefully next week we'll start delivering balls into the box more."
UNSUNG HEROES: Bulls right back Alec Fisher has come a long way in his four years - it wasn't long ago when he seemed reluctant to take chances and was less inclined to jump into the attack. Fast forward to his upperclassman years, where he's now a confident piece in the offense without sacrificing his defensive duties.
The Michigan native put in one of his more gutsy shifts on Friday, fighting through a cramp late in the match before chasing down a loose ball and serving the driven, out-swinging cross that found Cicerone's head. There's no mistaking MAC foes intentionally try to expose Fisher and his fullback partner, Austin Place, in one-vs.-one situations on the wings, but Fisher ultimately held the upper hand against Western.
Bulls holding midfielder Daniel Cramarossa and goalkeeper Kuta were both strong against the Broncos, too, with Cramarossa often the only UB player to connect passes and Kuta proving sure-handed and mentally prepared yet again.
THE FINAL WORD: Friday's result could have been much worse for the Bulls. A loss would have put Akron and Western in commanding position in the MAC, with 1-0-1 Bowling Green creeping up behind. Northern Illinois, which also drew Western earlier in the conference slate, shouldn't be overlooked, even though they got pulverized, 7-0, by Akron.
"The first 60 minutes - we didn't have that fight, but when we went a goal down we started to turn it on," Cicerone summed. "We can't be doing that this late in the season. [But] to be able to come back from that after that much adversity [was great], with the conditions playing that big of a factor in the game. It was a pretty nasty one out there."
Email Ben Tsujimoto, who appreciates that he was able to remain indoors during that match, at firstname.lastname@example.org