Men’s Soccer: Northwestern fails to reclaim Big Ten Tournament title, falls against Michigan State in semifinals

Enrique Perez, Reporter

Northwestern’s efforts were outdone Friday, as it was knocked out of the Big Ten Tournament in a 1-0 loss to No. 20 Michigan State in Columbus, Ohio.

The Wildcats (10-7-3, 2-5-1 Big Ten) went into the semifinal encounter with momentum on their side, having upset the No. 13 Badgers in Wednesday afternoon’s quarterfinal match. That game saw junior defender Grant Wilson and junior midfielder Eric Weberman both get on the score sheet to seal the 2-1 victory.

The return of veterans like redshirt senior midfielder Chris Ritter, junior defender Nikko Boxall and junior goalkeeper Tyler Miller was a huge boost to the Cats’ chances. They all played in Friday’s semifinal meeting as well.

NU knew that Michigan State (12-4-3, 4-2-1) made for some fierce competition. The Cats were ousted 3-2 in heartbreaking fashion when the two teams last clashed Oct. 6 at Lakeside Field. That contest went into double overtime and was the NU’s first conference loss this year.

“We were looking at it from a must-win perspective,” senior midfielder Connor Holloway said. “Everyone was ready to go and just execute our game plan.”

The Cats were executing ball control well at first and seemed to have the greatest number of chances during the game. They outshot the Spartans 18-7 and generated seven corners to Michigan State’s one.

But the Spartans quickly turned the tables in the 24th minute, when midfielder Fatai Alashe stole the ball from Cats sophomore forward Joey Calistri and smashed it into the net from just outside the box.

Although the Spartans struck first blood, the Cats continued to barrage the opposition thanks to dominant ball possession. Senior midfielder Lepe Seetane had a chance to pull NU level after the ball fell to him from a failed Michigan State clearance. Seetane’s blast went wide left of the post as the Spartans went into the half up 1-0.

“We threw everything we had at them,” coach Tim Lenahan said. “We were playing against a veteran team, and this is not their first time having to defend a one-goal lead.”

Boxall, who usually plays in the back line of defense, was moved up to accompany Calistri in the attacking effort. This tactical decision nearly paid off for Lenahan and the Cats in the 62nd minute, when the Spartan defense lost track of Boxall. He was left unmarked in the box only to see his headed effort at goal go just above the crossbar.

Frustration mounted on NU’s side, but the Cats kept their poise and continued to fight on harder as the game wore on. Minutes later, Holloway was forced off the field for a medical consultation as blood ran down his nose and mouth. He returned to the field soon afterwards.

“I just got hit in the face,” Holloway said. “I had a bloody nose and lips, but it happens.”

Michigan State goalkeeper Zach Bennett was key to his team’s victory. He made a few clutch saves, including a last cross that was directed toward an open Calistri in front of goal. It was Bennett’s second shutout of the tournament, ultimately sending NU on its way out.

The Cats now look forward to the possibility of participating in the NCAA Tournament. With the team pulling out positive performances in the Big Ten Tournament — in spite of the semifinal result — this is a real possibility.

“We’re still fortunate enough to be on the right side of the bubble,” Lenahan said. “I think we’ve found ourselves over the last few days, and whoever we play here on, we’re going to be a force to be reckoned with.”

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