Illinois makes case for NCAAs by taking Penn State to the limit
CHAMPAIGN – They were 10 minutes from their biggest win ever, one goal from the defining moment for a young soccer program.
The Illinois women's soccer team played the best game in its four-year history and took a national powerhouse to the limit, but it was not enough.
Seventh-ranked Penn State spoiled Dad's Day Weekend with a 2-1 triple overtime win against the Illini on Friday in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals at Illini Field.
The Illini will find out Sunday when the NCAA tournament field is announced if their season ended on a chilly night in Champaign.
Junior Colleen Joyce said she wouldn't mind meeting with the selection committee.
"It definitely hurts to know we were up 1-0, but we know we played the best we could," Joyce said. "Maybe the committee will look at it and see how that we have improved throughout the season.
"We worked extremely hard this season. I think we deserve it."
She's not alone.
Penn State assistant coach Paula Wilkins – filling in for head coach Pat Farmer, who received a red card Thursday – said Illinois (13-7-0) should be considered for its "caliber of play" despite some ugly early season losses.
Illini head coach Tricia Taliaferro hopes Friday's performance in the longest game in school history will net Illinois' first-ever NCAA berth.
"I think it will help us," Taliaferro said. "We had to make sure we came into the tournament and had a good performance. I think a 3-1 victory over Michigan State was pretty convincing, and taking the No. 7 team in the country to triple overtime shows that this team has improved in the second half of the season, and that's what they look at."
Illinois' improvement since a 3-0 loss to Penn State a month ago would be enough for Taliaferro.
Her team played with high energy and intensity from the start and was not intimidated by the Nittany Lions (19-2-1), who have a 15-game winning streak.
"I think going out and knowing we could play with them was the difference," Taliaferro said. "Some people look at the rankings and say, 'This is Penn State.' They already have an advantage. We learned from our experience when we were out at State College.
"We set the tone. We were winning the 50-50 balls. We were creating a lot of chances. We were making them work."
The Illini controlled the flow of play early and scored 23 minutes, 45 seconds into the game when Hollie Schurr crossed the ball in the middle to Joyce.
Joyce tapped it to Emily Brown, who blasted a 15-yarder past All-America goalkeeper Emily Oleksiuk into the right corner.
"The first time we played them, we scored two goals early, and that made them flatten out," Wilkins said. "This time, they got on the board earlier, and that helped them build momentum and confidence."
Behind a solid defense, Illinois held the lead until a breakdown with less than 10 minutes left in regulation allowed Erin Miller to score her first goal of the season.
"As a team you have to look at how do we regroup, how do we run at them?" Taliaferro said. "I think we did that. We picked it up after they scored that goal. We tried to high pressure them."
Penn State hit the post, and Oleksiuk made a diving save on a Brown shot, and the teams went to overtime. They traded unsuccessful chances for two nerve-racking, 15-minute, sudden-death periods.
"It was crazy, especially when I came out for some breaks," Joyce said. "The bench was probably more tense than on the field. We really felt like we were going to do it. We thought we were going to get that goal."
Instead, it was Bonnie Young – a forward switched to defense this year – who blasted a 35-yard free kick off Illinois keeper Sarah Anderson's fingertips and into the net for the game winner two minutes into the third overtime.
"We knew we had to keep fighting and eventually the goal would come," Young said. "We wouldn't let our Big Ten season end there."