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Victor Bezerra’s career day carries Indiana through to the Sweet 16

The Indiana reserves made a bee-line from the bench to meet Victor Bezerra as he ran to the corner flag on the near sideline at Bill Armstrong Stadium.

Victor Bezerra works on Michigan’s Jack Hallahan during the Big Ten Tournament championship game in College Park. (Jared Rigdon/HN)

As Bezerra pumped his fists and leaped into the air to celebrate his first-half goal against Kentucky, the rest of the team joined in on the party. 

It felt like there was a little added importance to the moment. 

Not only was it IU’s first shot of the entire game, but it was the first goal IU scored against the Wildcats all season. 

It was the moment IU needed against a team that has had its number the past two years. It was also the start of a special day for the freshman forward Bezerra to help carry IU through to the Sweet 16 with a 3-0 victory over Kentucky Sunday afternoon.

“It’s something I train a lot, finishing,” Bezerra said. “I was able to help the team out with three goals today and I’ll continue to try and help the team.”

If there was ever a time for Bezerra to having a coming out party, there was no better stage than IU’s opening game in the NCAA Tournament. 

IU head coach Todd Yeagley joked that he would’ve felt a little more comfortable heading into today had he known Bezerra had three goals in him.

He came into the day with five goals on the season but hadn’t scored since October 29th against Ohio State.

By the end of the afternoon he was up to eight goals on the season, two clear of Josh Penn for the team lead after his hat-trick dispatched Kentucky and carried IU through to the next round.

He got the action started in the 21st minute after A.J. Palazzolo played a ball back to Bezerra inside the 18-yard box that was buried in the back of the net. 

Just nine minutes later, it was Simon Waever who crossed a ball into Bezerra who found the goal once again to secure the brace. 

It was one of the best halves of soccer that IU had played all season. IU had been very prone to slow starts, especially against a team with the quality of talent like Kentucky, but Sunday afternoon felt different.

“We just learn from how the first games went,” Palazzolo said. “We’ve grown as a team since those games. We’re meshing well, more so than the beginning of the season. Our preparation is the same for every game but definitely playing them earlier in the season helped with figuring out what we needed to do today.”

It became pretty evident early that Kentucky was still feeling the effects of a double overtime opening round victory over Loyola-Chicago on Thursday evening. Pair the 100-plus minutes of match time in the pouring rain with a day of travel on just two days rest and it was a recipe for some tired bodies.

Kentucky could never really get into the flow of the match offensively against IU’s talented midfield and defense. On top of that, it lost its star center-back Aime Mabika in the first half to injury, opening up a hole in the backline.

The 2-0 lead IU had after the first half felt comfortable, but Bezerra came back to finish the job. This time it wasn’t off an outstanding assist. It was Bezerra taking the ball himself and firing a rocket into the top right corner of the net from nearly 30 yards out. 

It was a deserving way to cap off a career day for the player who didn’t even make the all-freshman team in the Big Ten this season. 

His hat-trick was the first for an IU player since Tanner Thompson did it in 2016 and was only the third one in the program’s postseason history. 

“We’ve got something to lose now,” Bezerra said. “We don’t want the season to end and we know this is a special group. We knew that if we got that first goal, the rest would start to follow. As soon as we got the first we wanted more.”

There was a lot made this week about IU’s opening match being against a top-20 opponent in Kentucky. But IU never let that be an excuse. 

Last weekend in College Park for the Big Ten Tournament, IU’s only goal came off a penalty kick in the semi-finals against Maryland. Sunday, it turned in a three-goal effort thanks to Bezerra. 

IU is starting to find its stride as fall turns to winter and as postseason play continues. Once again, IU will spend Thanksgiving in Bloomington ahead of a Sweet 16 matchup next Sunday.

“The guys are really locked in,” Yeagley said. “We took a really good Kentucky team out of rhythm and it’s great to spend Thanksgiving with the team.”

 

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