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Rapid Reaction: Northwestern staves off Iowa, 3-1, to advance to tournament semis

Taking care of business.

Northwestern Softball/@NUSBcats

As the NCAA Tournament looms closer, the ‘Cats have taken their first big step at boosting their resume with a Big Ten Tournament title.

The Wildcats won their first game in what they likely hope with be a full weekend of softball, as No. 1-seed Northwestern (36-11, 20-3 B1G) defeated No. 9-seed Iowa (31-27, 10-13 B1G), 3-1 on Thursday. With the win, NU advances to the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament.

The ‘Cats were lead by Lauren Boyd, who gave up one run on five hits, three walks and struck out three in five innings. First-year Kelsey Nader was the difference maker on offense, clobbering a two-run triple to give NU an insurmountable lead. Angela Zedak also contributed at the plate, picking up two hits.

Boyd got the start for the Wildcats, her 15th of the year. She opened the game with a strikeout, but clipped Tatianna Roman with a pitch to allow her first baserunner of the contest. No. 15 worked around the runner, forcing two lazy fly balls to each corner of the outfield to end the top of the first and bring the ‘Cats to the plate.

Skyler Shellmyer worked a leadoff walk for Northwestern, and swiped second base for her 18th steal of the season; however, the ‘Cats’ heart of the lineup could not strike first. Jordyn Rudd lofted a shallow fly ball to centerfield, and Hannah Cady popped up to short for the final out — leaving a runner stranded in scoring position.

In the top of the second, the Hawkeyes created traffic on the basepaths. A leadoff single and walk put two runners on first and second with no outs. In the ensuing at-bat, Brylee Klosterman drilled a line drive to left center, but Shellmyer sprawled out for an immaculate catch — holding the Hawkeyes off the scoreboard. A sac-bunt moved both runners into scoring position, but Boyd caught the outside corner to get the third out of the inning.

Nikki Cuchran launched a ball to center at the bottom of the frame, but Roman made the grab as she slammed into the wall. Zedak took notes from Cuchran, ripping a pitch off the center field fence for a standup double — NU’s first hit of the day. Kelsey Nader looped a single into shallow right field, scoring Zedak and putting the Wildcats up 1-0.

In the top of the third, back-to-back singles put runners on for the Hawkeyes, but Boyd worked out of trouble to keep NU ahead. Northwestern could not do anything in the bottom half of the inning, holding a slim 1-0 lead through three.

Boyd worked a 1-2-3 inning in the top of the fourth. In the bottom of the frame, Cuchran and Zedak ripped singles to set the ‘Cats up with two runners in scoring position with no outs. With one gone, Nader launched a ball just past the outstretched arms of Roman and cruised in for a two-run triple to expand NU’s lead to 3-0.

Iowa did not go down easy. In the top of the fifth, Boyd hit Emma Henderson with a pitch and Nia Carter laid down a perfect bunt for a single, bringing the tying run up to the dish. The Hawkeyes loaded the bases and capitalized. In an eight-pitch battle, Grace Banes worked a walk to bring the runner in from third. Boyd was able to prevent further damage, as Zedak slid for a catch to end the inning, maintaining NU’s 3-1 lead. Northwestern did not answer in the bottom of the inning, going down in order.

Boyd’s night ended after five innings of one-run softball, with First-Team All-Big Ten selection Danielle Williams coming on in relief in the sixth inning. No. 24 was lockdown in the circle, retiring the side in order. Northwestern did not add any insurance runs in the bottom of the sixth, heading into the final frame while clinging to a two-run lead.

In the top of the seventh, Williams surrendered a leadoff single on a slow chopper over her head. While the runner reached third, No. 24 slammed the door shut, giving Northwestern a 3-1 victory and advancing to the Big Ten Tournament semifinals.

The ‘Cats are back in action tomorrow, and will take on the winner of Nebraska and Illinois at 7:30 p.m. CDT.