Rutgers records undefeated season at home with 3-1 win over No. 19 Minnesota

PISCATAWAY — The final home game of the season held big implications for the Rutgers women’s soccer team.

Entering Friday's game against Minnesota tied for third in the conference with 17 points and knowing the top four seeds in the conference earn a home game for the Big Ten Tournament, the No. 12 Scarlet Knights knew how crucial it was to pick up some points.

By defeating the No. 19 Golden Gophers (11-4-3, 6-3-1) by a score of 3-1, Rutgers did just that, showing offensive firepower to go along with its typical stout defense.

The Knights (13-2-2, 6-2-2) became only the third team in school history to finish unbeaten at home during the regular season, an enormous accomplishment for a team that has emphasized the importance of winning at home since the start of the year.

“A game like this shows a lot about this team’s character,” said head coach Mike O’Neill. “The commitment of this team to all areas of the game is really special, and to get another win at home is very important for us.”

On a crisp autumn night for the team’s Blackout game, the Knights got off to a slow start and took some time before their offense began to click.

Senior midfielder Samantha Valliant had the first close chance for the Knights in the 25th minute off a throw-in, when her shot from the right side rang off the crossbar.

But the Golden Gophers quickly responded to the Rutgers threat with the first score of the match in the 29th minute.

Tori Burnett and Maddie Gaffney fed the ball to teammate Josee Stiever near the front of the net before she took a quick shot past sophomore goalkeeper Casey Murphy to put Minnesota on the board in the 28th minute.

It was only the fifth goal the Knights have allowed on the season.

After some more back-and-forth play, Rutgers got on the board in the 41st minute when junior forward Jessica Puchalski scored her first goal of the season after the ball bounced around in front of the net.

Puchalski stuck out her right foot in between a few defenders and sent the ball past Minnesota goalkeeper Tarah Hobbs, making it a 1-1 game heading into halftime.

The Knights’ intensity came through towards the end of the half, with Rutgers outshooting Minnesota, 8-3, in the first 45 minutes.

“It was great to get that goal in front of our fans,” Puchalski said. “We got off to a slow start, but stayed confident and knew we could turn the game around. That’s what we did.”

Junior defender Erin Smith gave the Knights the lead in the 58th minute with a left-foot shot from just outside the 18-yard box that went over a leaping Hobbs and into the top left corner of the net to put Rutgers ahead, 2-1.

But Smith was not done there.

Shortly after in the 60th minute, she assisted on sophomore forward Colby Ciarrocca’s team-leading sixth goal of the season, which increased the Knights’ lead to 3-1.

It was an action-packed few minutes for Smith, who continues to give Rutgers versatility with her speed and quick decision-making ability.

“We all knew that this was a really important game, and at halftime we said, ‘There’s no more talking about winning — let’s go out and do it,’” she said. “We weren’t letting anything get in the way of playing our best tonight.”

Murphy only needed to record one save in the match, as the Knights outshot the Golden Gophers, 19-5, on the evening.

After some more Big Ten action on Saturday, Rutgers still finds itself tied for third in conference play with Michigan at 20 points.

The team trails Wisconsin and Penn State, but is still in line to host a Big Ten Tournament game pending results from the upcoming week.

This game could have easily gotten away from the Knights' after allowing that early goal, but the team showed some of its trademark resiliency by keeping calm and responding with timely goals.

“We didn’t play our best to start out, but the goal at the end of the first half was big,” O’Neill said. “Then we went inside and talked about what we needed to do, and we figured some things out and the team responded so well.”

For updates on the Rutgers women’s soccer team, follow @TargumSports on Twitter.

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