For 40 minutes, it looked like Northwestern was on the verge of Big Ten Tournament heartbreak yet again.
But it only took three golden minutes for the Wildcats to shut those doubts down. A flurry of three goals near the end of the third quarter propelled No. 1-seeded Northwestern (17-1, 8-0 B1G) to a 3-1 Big Ten semifinal victory over No. 5-seeded Ohio State (14-6, 4-4 B1G). The ‘Cats will advance to their second-straight Big Ten final, and will look to win the tournament for the first time since 2014.
Northwestern has never won the Big Ten regular season title and Big Ten Tournament in the same season.
Annabel Skubisz had a remarkable day with 10 crucial saves, allowing just one goal after Northwestern put the game out of reach. Although Ohio State won the shots-on-goal battle 11-6, relentless pressure from Peyton Halsey opened up the game for NU. The senior led the team with five shots, three of which were on goal and one of which got past the goalie. Two of the other three — from Lauren Wadas and Ilse Tromp — all found the back of the net. Lauren Hunter and Alia Marshall each had two assists.
Leanne Bough, Makenna Webster and Hallie Brost each put up three shots on target for the Buckeyes. Brost scored the team’s lone goal, which Webster assisted.
In just about 90 seconds, Ohio State found its way into the circle for the first time. However, Skubisz kicked it away. Through the next few minutes, both teams struggled to generate much offense until Mackenna Webster drew a corner. Katie Rodjik’s ensuing shot was blocked by the NU defense, which set the tone for the first half. The Buckeyes were able to keep the ball in Northwestern’s half throughout, but rarely found clean looks.
NU’s best chance came on a play in transition from Olivia Bent-Cole. The first-year sped off in transition and beat a defender to set up a chance near the goal, but she just missed Chloe Relford on the far side. The ‘Cats failed to put up a shot in the first, despite earning a corner.
The second quarter was much of the same story. Northwestern struggled to connect on passes in the midfield, which allowed the Buckeyes to dominate possession. Ohio State earned consecutive corners, but the defense knocked away one and Skubisz saved the other. Although Northwestern drew two corners in the period, Ohio State’s offensive performance put the defense under a ton of pressure. Two green cards from Wadas gave the Buckeyes two 11-on-10 advantages. Three saves from the Big Ten Goalkeeper of the Year — two of which came while she was on the ground — kept the score even going into the half.
Heading into halftime, Ohio State had outshot the Wildcats 7-3, and 4-1 on goal. Northwestern’s press and counterattack — two of its biggest driving factors behind its offense all year — were relatively quiet. It seemed inevitable that OSU would break through unless Tracey Fuchs made some adjustments to reverse the momentum.
That’s exactly what she did. For a moment, it seemed like not much had changed when Ohio State’s Hallie Brost forced Skubisz to make another save on a loose ball. Gradually, though, Northwestern’s attack picked it up. A green card on Webster gave NU an advantage, which Peyton Halsey appeared to cash in on with a shot that found the back of the net. However, the officials waved it off due to an infraction, and her next shot was wide.
Halsey’s miss would be Northwestern’s last missed opportunity for the foreseeable future. With about 3:30 left in the third, NU drew a corner. Marshall and Hunter set up Tromp, who flicked a bullet of a shot that found the back of the net. Less than 40 seconds later, NU worked its way into the attacking half to draw yet another corner, which Wadas cashed in to double Northwestern’s lead.
Somehow, the ‘Cats still weren’t done. Ohio State drew a corner, but the defense blocked another shot from Rodjik. That jumpstarted a golden opportunity in transition. Crisp passing created a fastbreak, which Halsey capitalized on with a goal off a feed from Bent-Cole. Northwestern had opened up a 3-0 lead in the blink of an eye.
Ohio State continued to generate offensive momentum in the fourth quarter, as it drew four corners. Eventually, it broke through with about six minutes to play when Brost deposited an assist from Webster to make the score 3-1. The Buckeyes worked their way inside the circle a few more times, but Northwestern’s defense held strong to send the Wildcats to their second straight Big Ten Championship.
The top-ranked Wildcats will face the winner of the second semifinal between No. 2-seed Rutgers and No. 3-seed Maryland on Sunday at 11 a.m. CT. The game will be broadcast on Big Ten Network.