CHAMPAIGN – Michigan State women's soccer coach Tom Saxton didn't really need any convincing, but what he saw Thursday left no doubts about Illinois.
The Illini were the highest-scoring team in the conference heading into the Big Ten Tournament, and that wasn't by luck, according to Saxton.
"This is the most dangerous offensive team in the Big Ten, in my mind," Saxton said. "I said it when we were down here before. They can beat any team in the country with their offense."
Saxton saw that offense up close for the second time this year as Illinois scored three second-half goals to beat the Spartans 3-1 on the Illini's old field at the corner of First Street and Stadium Drive.
They Illini (13-6-0) will need that offense in today's 5 p.m. semifinal with top-seeded Penn State (18-2-1), which beat Illinois 3-0 on Oct. 6.
"We're excited to see anybody we lost to in the regular season," said Illinois junior Emily Brown, who had two goals and one assist. "We're pretty confident we can beat Penn State. We didn't have a strong game against them the first time, gave up a couple of early goals.
"If we can come out excited again, we have a chance to beat them."
The Illini had plenty of chances in the first half, but MSU backup goalkeeper Stacy Heller stopped a Heidi Holtzman blast, corralled a Brown header and watched a Tiffany Walker breakaway shot roll wide.
Illinois broke through early in the second half and kept up the pressure to win its school-record 13th game and a tournament opener for the second straight year.
"That shows maturity on our part," UI coach Tricia Taliaferro said. "We're starting to learn how important these games are and not to let them slip away."
Brown cashed in on her first opportunity in the second half. Lisa Baldwin streaked down the left side and then centered the ball, which slowly rolled to Brown in front of the net.
She waited for what seemed like an eternity with her leg cocked, then slammed the ball off Heller into the net. Michigan State answered 46 seconds later when Gina Dawson scored on a corner kick.
"Once Illinois scored a goal, I think everybody just said 'Hey, let's go for it,' " Saxton said. "And then it was a wide-open game. And I think that favored the Illinois team with a little better team speed."
Less than three minutes later, Illini midfielder Tara Schuling, who joked she has trouble staying on her feet, broke the tie with a sliding shot.
"Our goal was to dominate the game and have high pressure, and that's what we did," Schuling said. "The first half we made adjustments. They changed their formation. We came out with a new form to play."
Brown knocked home a pass from Colleen Joyce to cap the scoring with her 14th goal of the season.
"It seems a little sweeter this year with some of the disappointments we've had and knowing we could have finished higher," Brown said. "We wanted to come out with energy and forget about the regular season and just have confidence that we can win this whole tournament."
Penn State, which beat Minnesota 1-0 Thursday, stands in the way. The Lions have won all five meetings with the Illini.
Their stifling defense has posted a school-record 14 shutouts, including their last five games – and boasts All-American goalkeeper Emily Oleksiuk.
"The first game we dominated the second half and we played well," Taliaferro said. "We've got to set the pace, set the tone with them. You never know, but I'll take the home field advantage."