Illinois draws with Ohio State in Big Ten opener

Ohio State defeated Illinois 2-1 to win last year’s Big Ten Tournament, so the Illini knew this game would not be easy. In a title rematch that doubled as the conference opener for both teams, the Illini were able to manage a 1-1 draw against the Buckeyes in Columbus, Ohio, on Friday.

A quick offensive start and a late defensive lapse resulted in the Illini now standing at 5-2-2 overall and 0-0-1 in the Big Ten.

“I think it was a little of the tale of two halves,” head coach Janet Rayfield said, “We were certainly playing the kind of game you wanted to play in the first half. I felt like we kept possession.”

The match was fairly even in more ways than the final goal tally. The Buckeyes outshot the Illini 23-18, but Illinois was more efficient with a 12-10 shot-on-goal advantage. A physical game had surprisingly no cards shown, but Ohio State committed nine fouls and Illinois had six.

All goalkeepers played solidly. Freshman Claire Wheatley saved seven shots for the Illini while senior Lauren Parkin saved two shots. Sophomore Jillian McVicker and senior Rachel Middleman split time in goal for the Buckeyes. McVicker had five saves and Middleman had six.

Middleman started the match and was immediately under attack from the Illinois offense, which was playing with the wind at its back. The Illini controlled possession from the start as they usually have. In the sixth minute, Jannelle Flaws received the ball from about 20 yards out just to the right of the half circle and converted an upper-90 goal to go up 1-0.

Illinois would threaten only a few more times in the first half, but it also kept Ohio State in check for the most part.

Like a number of times this season, the second half unraveled quite differently from the first. Ohio State was now playing with the wind and began taking control of the match. As the half progressed, the Buckeyes created more and more opportunities. The Buckeyes’ leading goal scorer Nichelle Prince, a speedy freshman forward, made several dangerous runs toward the Illinois box. Sophomore defender Amy Feher, who Rayfield said played the best game of her career, marked Prince well enough to make her not a huge factor throughout the match.

Ohio State tried to take advantage of what Illinois knew has been a weak spot this season: balls played over the top.

In the 84th minute, Ohio State finally broke through. Midfielder Ellyn Gruber chipped a beautiful pass over the head of senior defender Kassidy Brown to forward Michela Paradiso on the left side. Paradiso then hit the ball to the right goalpost past Wheatley to tie the match 1-1.

“I think that was just miscommunication with one (defender) not stepping and one not covering,” Brown said.

Ohio State also took advantage of the wind on the other side of the field. Buckeyes defenders were pressing and giving little room to Flaws and the other forwards.

“In the first half they were definitely dropping off a lot and giving us more space to keep possession,” Flaws said. “The second half they shorted that space so it was harder to keep possession like we were doing in the first half.”

In the closing minutes, Ohio State threatened with a flurry of possessions in the Illinois defensive third. A corner kick with about 30 seconds to go was knocked away but then hit back into the box. Ohio State was able to threaten again with a header Wheatley managed to save, but she was fouled hard in the chest area as she dove to save the ball again and was on the ground for several minutes. She would eventually walk off the field mostly under her own power and senior Lauren Parkin would replace her.

“I think she’s a little bit bruised, but I think she’s going to be alright,” Rayfield said.

Parkin also played solidly, saving two shots and not allowing any more goals. Rayfield said the team played a better overtime than second half, but it was ultimately not enough as the match ended in a 1-1 draw. Even one point against the now 6-1-2 Buckeyes is a challenge for any team to attain. The Illini are not completely dissatisfied with the result, but they are not particularly happy about it either.

“A point on the road in the Big Ten is nothing to give back,” Rayfield said. “We’ll take the point and (we’re) frustrated that we didn’t get three points out of it, but it’s a good Ohio State team.”

Alex can be reached at [email protected] and @AlexOrtiz2334.