Northwestern (10-4-3, 4-4-2 BIG) entered the weekend ahead of just two teams in conference play with only four games to go. After a hot start to the season, including a record-breaking scoreless streak, they had gone silent in Big Ten play amid the absence of fullback Nikia Smith, and it looked likely that they would miss the eight-team Big Ten Tournament.
But after grinding out a 2-1 comeback win over Indiana and a 0-0 draw with Purdue, both teams that will miss the conference tournament themselves, Smith returned (along with fellow senior Marisa Viggiano, who had missed the tilts with the Hoosiers and Boilermakers), and the Wildcats won their most important game of the season.
In last weekend’s games, Mackenzie Wood, the only player in the Big Ten this year to win a weekly award thrice (Freshman of the Week) stood tall, making some outstanding saves to preserve valuable points. Namely, there was this incredible penalty stop:
With help from some timely goals from leading scorer Brenna Lovera and Nia Harris, the Wildcats withstood Indiana shorthanded. But despite Wood’s brilliance, the team mustered only a scoreless draw against Purdue, leaving them on the outside looking in on the Big Ten Tournament for the time being.
They certainly responded to that adversity. The Wildcats dominated their intrastate rivals, holding a 2-0 lead late into the second half until a scrum off of a corner kick led to a cheap goal for the Fighting Illini. For the last six and a half minutes of a game, Illinois (though they were down a player) failed to even advance the ball into Northwestern’s penalty box.
Northwestern started the game off quickly. Viggiano, who made a significant impact all game from the midfield, found Brenna Lovera for her team-leading 8th goal of the year (also her 19th career goal, tying her for sixth in program history) off a beautiful curling shot:
With Smith adding another dimension to the Wildcat defense, they blanketed the Illini, not allowing a single true chance in the run of play for the entire game. The redshirt senior, often the fastest player on the field, allow the dynamic center back pairing of Kayla Sharples and Hannah Davison a larger margin for error, and pushes the rest of the team back into their natural positions. The difference shows: including last night, Northwestern is 7-0-2 in games where Smith has played over 55 minutes (she got injured against Minnesota, a 2-0 loss, and played just 18 minutes Sunday against Purdue for Senior Day).
Meanwhile, Viggiano, who narrowly missed a couple of chances in the first half, got another opportunity 15 minutes into the second frame. First-year Kaylee Titus found open space on a perfectly-timed run before being shoved in the back by Illinois’ Hope Breslin. Breslin was sent off for the denial of a clear goal-scoring opportunity, and Viggiano made her pay doubly with this rocket of a free kick:
In the end, the 2-1 win was easier than it looked on paper. Regardless, it vaulted Northwestern back into the hunt for a berth in both the Big Ten and NCAA Tournament. With each team having one conference game left, here’s how the standings shake out:
The Wildcats sit precariously in 8th, but they do control their own destiny. A win in their final matchup with Iowa guarantees them not only a tournament spot, but also the seventh seed at a minimum. With Nebraska and Illinois playing each other, the Wildcats would necessarily vault one after a win, allowing them to avoid a red-hot Penn State squad. (CORRECTION: Nebraska has another game left after Sunday, so Northwestern could only lock themselves into at least seventh with a win and a non-win by Illinois) A draw would make things more fraught, as the club would have to rely on Michigan dropping points to bottom-feeders Michigan State in order to lock in a berth.
Despite their struggles in conference play, Northwestern is very much in contention for an NCAA Tournament spot as well. After a dominant 6-0-1 performance outside the conference and a win over the aforementioned Nittany Lions, the Wildcats have the top-end wins and the brand name to dance. But thanks to their inconsistency against inferior opponents. Northwestern may need at least one Big Ten Tournament win in addition to a victory over Iowa to reach the field. Right now, they are squarely on the bubble, hoping to make their class of outstanding senior the first in program history to make four tournament appearances.
Tune in on Sunday as the Wildcats, finally at full strength, try to take another big step towards punching their ticket to two postseason tournaments for another year.