EVANSTON — When Illinois started the Big Ten slate 0-2-1, all those fuzzy feelings from a 6-2 nonconference slate started to disappear.
The NCAA tournament might have been looking bleak.
Well, Janet Rayfield's never-say-die Illini haven't lost since that three-match road swing ended without a victory.
Vanessa DiBernardo capped a heart-pumping Big Ten tournament run — one that included three straight overtime games — with a goal in the extra period to give the Illini a 2-1 victory against Penn State in the championship match.
Illinois will learn its NCAA fate today when the pairings are announced on NCAA.com at 3 p.m.
"It's really exciting to finally get it in your head that you finally won and that all the work that you put in this season paid off," a banged-up DiBernardo said after the match.
The super sophomore was injured late in the first half. She returned — much to the delight of her coach.
"(Today is) a great step forward for Vanessa in terms of mental toughness," said Illini coach Janet Rayfield, who led the program to its second Big Ten tourney championship (2002). "She is a great player, and when you are a great player you are going to get hit a lot. She took a lot of knocks today and kept on going and that is a huge step for her."
The Illini can thank their defense — and Mother Nature — for this win. Facing a stiff breeze off Lake Michigan, Penn State managed one shot in the second half, and none in overtime.
"Our defense has played great all tournament long," Rayfield said. "The Big Ten is full of powerhouses in terms of goal scoring. This defense has seen some of the best and this defense has held up and answered that test."
Playing into the breeze, Julie Ewing got the Illini on the board first with a goal at the 5:51 mark of the first half.
Penn State evened the score late in the opening half. With DiBernardo on the turf with an injury, the regular season champion Nittany Lions pushed the ball up the field and scored off a shot by NCAA goals leader Maya Hayes.
But the Illini didn't give up. Not after winning in penalty kicks in the quarterfinals and in overtime in the semifinals.
"When it went to overtime they suddenly came alive and said, 'Overtime is our time,' " Rayfield said.