With the Big Ten Tournament almost a week away, Northwestern (10-4-3, 4-4-2) had only two games to spare to get a much-needed a W against Illinois (10-7-3, 5-5) and stay in the Big Ten playoff race. With the most successful senior class in Northwestern history, not making the postseason would be a big blow to the ‘Cats. Luckily, Northwestern escaped with a 2-1 victory over the Illini in a nailbiter.
Physicality dominated the match early on, as the squads accumulated 19 combined fouls. Northwestern broke the tilt in the 12th minute with an absolute peach of a goal by Brenna Lovera. Midfield maestro Marisa Viggiano played a ball at the top of the 18 to Lovera, who turned around the Illini right back, took a dribble inside and unleashed an unstoppable outswinging curler that bent just inside the opposite post for the game’s opening goal.
The rest of the first half proceeded rather uneventfully, aside from an excellent Illinois chance that was tipped over the bar by Northwestern keeper Mackenzie Wood off a corner.
The second half, however, was a sight to behold at best – and utterly nerve-wracking at worst. 60 minutes into the match, Illinois midfielder Hope Breslin took down a Wildcat attacker just outside the box and was given a straight red. Marisa Viggiano took the ensuing free kick and finessed a beautiful shot that bent outwardly away from the wall and into the bottom left hand corner.
With nine men and down two goals, the Illini’s fate appeared sealed, especially as Northwestern almost scored two more goals in the next several minutes after another long-range effort by Viggiano was palmed over the crossbar by Illinois keeper Jaelyn Cunningham.
Both teams continued their physical play into the second half, until both sides began to show their fatigue. Illinois began to storm back, but wasn’t having much success putting the ball in the net until around the 70th minute, when they began to build up possession playing three in the back. The Illini capitalized on their spell when Morgan Maroney whipped a corner into the box, where Wood punched the ball upward but not out of play. The rebound fell to midfielder Katie Murray, who headed the ball in. Wood appeared a bit perturbed on set pieces, and Illinois almost scored once again off a corner in the 83rd minute only for Wildcat defender Hannah Davison to make a goal line clearance before Ilinois could equalize.
The Wildcats closed out the game over the last ten minutes, taking home a critical win vital toward making the B1G tournament. Northwestern currently sits in the coveted eighth spot with 14 points, one more than either Iowa or Michigan. Tonight’s win turns the ‘Cats’ last game of the season against the Hawkeyes on Sunday, Oct. 21 in Iowa City into a play-in game for the tournament. If the ‘Cats lose, their tournament hopes will vanish, but with another win, Northwestern can give their seniors one more accomplishment to add to their sterling resume with a tournament berth.
— Northwestern Soccer (@NUWSoccer) October 19, 2018
Isaac Sultan contributed reporting for this story.