No. 12 Northwestern gave head coach Tracey Fuchs the best possible gift for her birthday on Thursday, taking down No. 15 Iowa 3-1 to advance to the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament. The Wildcats exacted some degree of revenge over the Hawkeyes in College Park, Maryland, avenging a 2-1 overtime loss in Evanston just a few weeks ago.
On Thursday, Iowa got off to a good start, earning a penalty corner and forcing a nice save out of NU goaltender Lindsay von der Luft in the opening minutes. But NU responded, earning a corner of its own and cashing in when Dominique Masters collected her own rebound and shot it towards goal where it was redirected into the goal by Kirsten Mansfield.
But the ‘Cats weren’t done there. Just over two minutes later, a great defensive play led to a counterattack opportunity, and Saar de Breij found herself alone charging the net. All Iowa keeper Alex Pecora could do was stick out her leg. It worked. Sort of. De Breij went down and NU was awarded a penalty stroke. Up stepped Isabel Flens, who sliced the shot past a diving Pecora and into the right side of the net for a 2-0 lead. It was Flens’ 16th goal of the season and the 50th of her career.
The Wildcats nearly made the lead three just before and shortly after halftime. De Breij had a wide open cage but her shot was deflected over the crossbar by the stick of stud Hawkeye freshman Katie Birch, and then after the restart, Masters beat Pecora but couldn’t beat the post.
That was the last great offensive chance the Wildcats had for a while, as the Hawkeyes pushed to get on the board. They finally did when they earned successive penalty corners and Sophie Plasteras cashed in on a rebound in front of goal to make it 2-1 with 29 minutes to go. Both teams came close to scoring for the next third of an hour, but neither managed to until NU, on another counterattack tacked on the goal that would seal the win with just under four minutes to play. Masters charged in on goal and had her initial shot saved, but tucked in the rebound to make it 3-1. Iowa challenged the play, but was unsuccessful; then the Hawkeyes pushed for two late goals, but were unsuccessful there too as the Wildcats held on for a 3-1 win.
But NU's run ended on Friday afternoon in College Park, when the No. 1 Maryland Terrapins defeated the Wildcats 3-2 in overtime in the Big Ten semifinals.
Both the Wildcats and Terrapins boast some excellent defense – both teams are in the top 25 nationwide in goals against average – so play on set pieces in their matchup was going to be critical, and it was NU who kicked things off. After Masters’ initial shot off a penalty corner was saved, Flens launched another shot that caromed off Maryland goalie Sarah Bates and into the corner of the goal for a 1-0 Wildcats lead. But it didn’t take long for the nation’s top team to respond, as the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Grace Balsdon scorched one along the ground off a Maryland corner and into the net to level the score just four minutes after Flens’ tally.
But the Wildcats’ leading scorer wasn’t done. NU got two more penalty corners 19 minutes in and Flens finished it off again on a cross-goal blast from the right side. Lily Gandhi and Sophia Miller were credited with the assists that restored the Wildcats’ one-goal lead.
The Wildcat defense was solid throughout, holding Maryland off the board through many Terrapin corners and chances late in the first half and early in the second. But things changed when Katie Yeatts was issued a green card, leaving Northwestern down a player about midway through the second half. Maryland capitalized almost immediately as Sophie Pelzer found herself all alone in front of goal and slotted the ball through the legs of a helpless Lindsay von der Luft to tie the game.
NU then had an opportunity to counter when Linnea Gonzales picked up a green card of her own with under ten minutes to play, but the Wildcats couldn’t manufacture much offense. Instead, Flens picked up a yellow card with under two minutes to go, leaving NU at a disadvantage for five minutes rather than two. The Terrapins couldn’t cash in in regulation, but it didn’t take them long to do so in overtime. Carrie Hanks took advantage of the added space in overtime and sent a cross-goal shot on target. Von der Luft kicked it away but she sent it right into the area of the conference Player of the Year, Welma Luus, who was there to bury it between the legs of a scrambling goaltender and win the match for Maryland just 1:41 into added time.
With the loss, the Wildcats fall to 13-8 (5-3 B1G) on the year. And even though they presently hold the No. 12 nationwide ranking, a postseason berth is far from guaranteed for the Wildcats. 14 teams automatically make the NCAA Tournament, with four other teams selected for two play-in games that will determine the final two entrants. The ‘Cats finished last season 13-8 after a Big Ten Semifinals loss to Maryland and were not selected for the NCAA Tournament. So now, all the Wildcats can do is wait – their playoff fate will be decided for them at the Selection Show on Sunday.