The Wildcats sprinted out of the gates with intensity and dominated possession of the ball for the first 45 minutes. UK outshot the Hawks 11-1, including a 9-1 advantage in corner kicks but struggled to find the back of the net.
As the teams jogged off the field and headed into their respective locker rooms, the Cats looked up at the scoreboard and saw a resemblance to a prior game they had played this year.
In the opening game of the season, Kentucky and Dayton were all knotted up at 0-0 after the first stanza. The squads exploded in the second half, scoring seven combined goals before the Cats eventually came up short in the contest, 4-3.
Head coach Johan Cedergren was not going to let his team forget about that defeat.
"I think we went into the half just like Dayton feeling pretty good about ourselves," Cedergren said. "I just said 'We don't want to leave this game feeling the same way we did at Dayton, so let's make sure we stay nice and solid in the back and slowly but surely we are going to wear them down with key passing.' "
Sure enough, Kentucky responded by scoring two second half goals and posting its first shutout of the season, earning Cedergren his first career victory in UK blue, 2-0.
The offense got a spark off the bench from freshmen Jacob Scearce and Bryan Celis. The two showed their energy right away, flying to the ball and wrecking havoc on St. Joe's.
After multiple shot attempts were denied midway through the second half, Celis made a pretty touch pass to Scearce in the box, who found the back of the net for his first career goal, giving the Wildcats a 1-0 lead in the 71st minute of the match.
"I really didn't know what to do with the ball at first," Scearce said. "I saw Celis making a great run to the right side of me and I just back heeled it. He made a great touch on the ball and I finished it from there."
Scearce and Celis did not shy away from the moment. They got their call from the bench and attacked the Hawks defense. That type of aggressive play is exactly what Cedergren is looking for out of his young freshmen.
"The two of them played today how we want freshmen to play," Cedergren said. "You don't come in and let the game come to you, you come in and grab the game. You say, 'I'm going to impose myself on the other team,' and they both did that today."
Senior Charlie Pettys gave the Wildcats a bit of a cushion in the 88th minute, as he fired a shot from about 25 yards out that just made it by the keeper's outstretched hand for a 2-0 lead.
Friday evening marked the first home game of the season for Kentucky and the Cats provided the fans with an offensive performance that should see them return for a showdown against No. 4 Charlotte on Sunday.
Every win is important, but after falling short by one goal in their first three games, this victory was a must for the Cats heading into Sunday.
"It means a lot," Cedergren said. "The guys have worked really hard this week and we are so excited to get the first win at home. We were so close in the first three games and to get a shutout really gives us a boost. Now we can go in and really be on our toes and play a really good team in Charlotte on Sunday."
The Cats outshot the Hawks 20-2 in the match but the defensive effort shouldn't be overlooked. After surrendering eight goals in the first three games of the season, Kentucky's back four played a tremendous 90 minutes.
Freshman goalkeeper Callum Irving was back in goal for the second time this year after making his first career start against Dayton. Irving flipped the script from two weeks ago, turning in an outstanding performance and providing the team with a much-needed solid defensive effort.
The back four of the defense looked in sync tonight and is improving every game according to Cedergren.
"Steven Perinovic deserves a lot of credit," Cedergren said. "Steven is a great guy and works so hard in practice. He's not the most vocal but he really cares and I think that Steven and Jacob Speed are really good players and are starting to figure each other out. Jacob Kemper, a former forward, and Charlie Pettys, a former center midfielder, I think are getting better every game. I think the back four are slowly but surely getting where we want to get."
UK clicked on all cylinders tonight and was able to add the second goal late to run away from St. Joe's. Scoring the second goal was big for the Cats after they had squandered a 1-0 lead against Northwestern last weekend.
The Wildcats have learned several lessons early this season that perhaps will make them a more mature team heading into conference play. The team looked poised and showed a desire to win.
"We've got a lot of guys that are really good on the ball but its just being able to take a two goal advantage," Cedergren said. "Charlie, as a senior, used an opportunity to advance us and he made a great shot. Tonight we showed are passion and what it means to us to win."