Illinois falls to Penn State in Big Ten tournament championship game

By Steve Contorno

The Illinois women’s soccer team entered the championship game of the Big Ten tournament having not allowed a goal in over 475 minutes. The No. 17-ranked Illini came in with a five-game win streak that included a 1-0 victory over Purdue in the semifinals.

But No. 12-ranked Penn State proved why they deserved the top seed in the tournament, as the host school took home the conference championship for the fourth time with a 3-1 victory over the Illini.

“We knew how good of an attack Penn State had and we didn’t think it was going to be a shutout,” head coach Janet Rayfield said. “We knew it was going to be a scoring match and we saw a lot of back and forth soccer.”

“Today’s game wasn’t about who was the better team,” junior forward Ella Masar said. “It was who took advantage of their opportunities. We didn’t, they did. They really didn’t beat us, we just didn’t finish.”

In the second game in the tournament, Illinois had trouble establishing an offense. After dismantling Wisconsin 3-0 in the first game, the Illini struggled to get shots on goal against Purdue on Friday. After senior forward Eva Strickland scored in the third minute on the team’s first shot of the game, the Illini only put two more shots on net.

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But junior goalkeeper Lindsey Carstens’ career-high eight saves and solid defensive play kept the 1-0 lead secure for the rest of the game.

“We needed that goal early by Eva (Strickland) to give us that little edge so they were playing from behind,” Rayfield said. “Defensively, we weren’t the best in terms of organizing, but the team was determined to keep the goal out of the net. We let them get behind us and we misplayed some balls, but today was determination more than organization.”

On Sunday, the Illini’s championship game against the Nittany Lions featured a rematch of the game played on Oct. 1. At home, Illinois came back from a two-goal deficit to pull out a 3-2 win. Down two goals again at the half, this time with Penn State at home, the Illini weren’t so lucky.

“Even going down 3-1 we never thought we were out of it,” Masar said. “We’ve gone into the half down two goals against them before, so we thought if we could just finish our chances we could come back.”

Penn State struck first with a goal in the 21st minute, scoring on a counter off an Illinois free kick. Illinois responded in the 38th minute on an unlikely goal from a corner kick. Masar’s serve from the corner went through the hands of Penn State’s keeper Alyssa Naeher for Masar’s fifth point of the tournament.

But Penn State scored two more goals in the first half, including one on a penalty kick after freshman midfielder Jackie Santacaterina fouled a Penn State player in the box. The goal came a minute after Masar’s, swinging the momentum back to Penn State’s favor.

“It was definitely frustrating for us,” sophomore defender Emily Zurrer said. “They’re one of the best offensive teams in the Big Ten and they did a great job of finishing their chances.”

“We did a lot of good things defensively,” Rayfield said. “If you didn’t see the game, and just looked at the score, you couldn’t see how well our defense played.”

Illinois’ battle to come back in the second half fell short, despite out-shooting and out-cornering the Nittany Lions. Early in the period, the Illini had chances to put points on the board, but were never able to take advantage of their opportunities.

Junior defender Kara Gostisha headed a corner just off net. Several minutes later, Naeher made two outstanding saves on Masar.

The Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year broke away from the defense and took a shot that Naeher deflected out of bounds, despite getting beat on the play. On the ensuing corner, Masar headered the ball into the corner, but Naeher’s diving save protected the two-goal lead.

“We were always under pressure in the box,” Rayfield said. “We just weren’t technically sound on our shooting and we didn’t get our shots on frame. We were missing that little something extra.”

Rayfield also said that fatigue set in with both teams early in the game. The physical demands of the three-game tournament turned the game into an “end-to-end, high-paced game,” Rayfield said.

“That was about as high-paced of a game as you’ll see in Big Ten play,” Rayfield said. “There wasn’t much of the game played in the midfield. Both teams played the ball the entire field.”

With less than one week until the NCAA tournament begins, the Illini will have to bounce back quickly from their loss. But Masar said she doesn’t think that will be a problem.

“Our confidence is still as high as it’s been all season,” Masar said. “We know what we have to do to win games and we know how good we are. We just need to finish.”