By BARRY WILNER AP Sports Writer
EAST HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) _ Ariel Martinez ended Cuba’s long Gold Cup drought with three goals Tuesday, and Jeniel Molina’s last-second score lifted the Cubans into the quarterfinals with a 4-0 rout of overmatched Belize.
It was Cuba’s first victory in 14 Gold Cup games, including 12 losses. The Cubans finished the opening round 1-2 after losses to the United States and Costa Rica, but the four-goal victory allowed them to advance over Martinique as one of the top third-place teams.
“For me, it was like winning the World Cup,” Martinez said. “It is a great achievement for us and it made me very happy.”
Belize (0-3), which finished with 10 men, was eliminated.
After Martinez completed his hat trick, the Cubans pressed for the fourth goal that would keep them in the tournament. They came close a handful of times, then Molina put in a short right-footed shot and his teammates stormed off the bench into the corner of the pitch to mob him.
Cuba advanced one other time, in 2003.
“It was a great game for us,” Cuba coach Walter Benitez said. “We put in as much effort as we needed to. It was a tremendous result.”
By far the best player on the field, Martinez connected with left-footed drives in the 38th and 63rd minutes. He completed the hat trick with a short right-footed shot in the 84th, and Cuba threatened several times to get a fourth. Each time a Cuban failed to hit the mark, he either held his head in frustration or stomped the ground.
But deep into injury time, with nearly every Cuban player in Belize’s box, Liban Perez headed a pass that Molina converted.
In the first half, Martinez moved from right wing toward the middle just outside the penalty area, then unleashed a shot from 18 yards that beat diving goalkeeper Woodrow West to his right just inside the post.
Cuba had nearly every good chance in the first half, but was frustrated by a lack of finishing touch until Martinez’s brilliant goal. Before beating West, Martinez had been stymied a half-dozen times by the Belize keeper, including twice in one minute.
Wood remained sharp for much of the second half, but was no match for Martinez’s slaloming move through the defense for a 12-yard shot to make it 2-0.
Perez’s pass freed Martinez for his third score, and suddenly Cuba sensed a chance to advance. It waited until the dying moments to seize the opportunity and will play Panama on Saturday in Atlanta.
Belize’s first Gold Cup concluded with three losses by a combined 11-1 margin, and a quick trip back to Central America. The Belizeans made news last week when two players, Wood and Ian Gaynair, said they were approached to fix a game against the United States, but rejected the offer.
Belize finished short-handed when Gaynair drew his second yellow card in the 81st minute. Cuba struck twice after that.
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