The Daily Northwestern

Women’s Soccer: Northwestern falls 2-1 in rainy Big Ten Championship barnburner

Marisa Viggiano protects the ball. The junior midfielder and the Wildcats fell to Penn State in the Big Ten tournament championship Sunday.

Marisa Viggiano protects the ball. The junior midfielder and the Wildcats fell to Penn State in the Big Ten tournament championship Sunday.

Daily file photo by Katie Pach

Daily file photo by Katie Pach

Marisa Viggiano protects the ball. The junior midfielder and the Wildcats fell to Penn State in the Big Ten tournament championship Sunday.

Charlie Goldsmith, Reporter

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Women’s Soccer

The rain-soaked clash between Northwestern and Penn State grew more physical, sloppy and chaotic after each lightning strike. Mudstained, bruised and black-eyed, the Wildcats fell 2-1 in the Big Ten Tournament Championship match after Penn State scored two late goals to keep second-seeded NU from its first-ever title.

Senior goalkeeper Lauren Clem called it one of the craziest days of her life, one that filled her with emotion in her last chance at a conference title. She saw it as an opportunity taken away from this group.

“Now, the whole team has to move on,” Clem said.

Lightning pushed back kickoff by more than 90 minutes, but the Cats came out strong in the early going.

Right after freshman forward Nia Harris gave the Cats a 1-0 lead with her first career goal in the 38th minute, lightning struck again and a four-hour delay followed. The match was moved to a nearby indoor complex with a turf field, a decision that coach Michael Moynihan said changed the flow of the match.

Penn State had nine shots in the first half played outdoors, and NU’s back line buried its chances in the mud. Then, the Cats were shoved into the turf, and Moynihan said he was frustrated with how they closed the match.

“They put us under a lot of pressure early and I thought we did a nice job weathering the storms,” he said. “But then they got a cross where the girl just jumped higher than us. And that goal took the wind out of our sails.”

Nittany Lions forward Laura Freigang scored the first Penn State goal in the 71st minute, one that Moynihan said deflated NU. Eight minutes later, midfielder Haleigh Echard fired a kick from outside the 18 yard box past Clem, who said she was frustrated watching the Nittany Lions celebrate with a trophy she was 20 minutes away from clinching.

“Once they got their first goal we were obviously a little taken aback, and we knew there was still a lot of time to move past it,” junior defender Kayla Sharples said. “But then they scored a second goal … then we had to leave it all out there.”

The Nittany Lions were the lower seed, but in the Big Ten, a fifth seed can be among the strongest programs in the country. Ranked 11th in the latest poll, Penn State has also won 18 regular season championships, a national championship and now seven titles in the conference tournament.

After the Cats lost to Penn State 3-0 to start their Big Ten schedule, Moynihan said they looked intimidated. He even called a team meeting where he asked the players if they could compete against the Nittany Lions.

He said NU has come a long way since that meeting — something he saw as a catalyst for the team’s Big Ten success. He thought the Cats proved themselves in the finals, but NU was stuck as runner up after a match that ended more than five hours after it was supposed to start.

The Cats, however, are expected to qualify for the NCAA Tournament and will hope to advance further than they did last season and reach their first Elite Eight in program history. Last season, NU advanced to the Sweet 16 and Clem said this team has always been focused on improving.

After scraping from the middle of the conference to second place in the Big Ten, the Cats have the perfect group to overcome this emotional setback, Moynihan said, because chemistry matters more as the season goes on, even if it was not enough to overcome Penn State on Sunday.

“I’m proud of the team for pulling together when our backs were up against the wall,” he said. “We just played one of the top teams in the country and did admirably. Now we have to look at that and see how far we can go.”

Twitter: @2021_Charlie