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Rutgers rides into Big Ten Tournament on eight game unbeaten streak

<p>Junior defender Erin Smith hopes the Knights continue playing the way they have Sunday against Minnesota in the Big Ten Tournament.</p>

Junior defender Erin Smith hopes the Knights continue playing the way they have Sunday against Minnesota in the Big Ten Tournament.

Riding a wave of momentum heading into the postseason, the No. 9 Rutgers women’s soccer team will host a Big Ten Tournament game for the first time in school history on Sunday afternoon when it takes on Minnesota.

These two teams met just last week at Yurcak Field, when the then-No. 12 Scarlet Knights rallied for a 3-1 comeback victory against the then-No. 19 Golden Gophers.

But the postseason brings on added pressure and forces adjustments to be made, especially when these teams are so familiar with each other given the recent regular season game.

“We know that we are playing a very tough team that we saw just last week, so we really have to stay focused and aware of what we need to do,” said head coach Mike O’Neill. “We played well against them last time, but know that we have to raise our level of play because it’s the postseason and that’s how you move on.”

The Knights (14-2-2, 7-2-2) enter the Big Ten quarterfinals as the No. 3 seed after defeating Iowa, 2-0, on Wednesday night.

The Golden Gophers (11-5-3, 6-4-1) are the No. 6 seed in the tournament and enter having dropped their last two games.

Despite the teams going in opposite directions over the past week, the postseason gives each team a chance to reset. Rutgers knows that it has to approach the game without worrying about how its opponent has been playing.

“Minnesota is a very talented team and we have seen that firsthand,” O’Neill said. “We know that it is going to be a very good match and we have to keep working to get better.”

Aside from a two-game road skid against Northwestern and Illinois in the middle of the season, the Knights have enjoyed one of the most successful seasons in school history.

Their 14 wins are the second-most in program history. They are two away from tying the 2006 team record of 16.

That same 2006 team also holds the school record with 16 shutouts in a season. This year's squad has won all 14 games this season with a clean sheet.

They are also unbeaten at home this season, posting a 9-0-1 record on the Banks.

The strong play throughout the season has given them the home playoff game they were striving for, and now they plan to take advantage of it.

“Winning at home is always a big thing for us and it’s a big deal to play the first Big Ten Tournament game at home,” said junior forward Jessica Puchalski, who scored her first goal of the season in the previous win over Minnesota. “It’s been one of our goals since the beginning of the preseason, and hopefully we can continue to play well in front of our fans.”

Excitement has been around this team the whole season, as it has been looking to improve upon last year’s team that was dropped in the Big Ten quarterfinals.

Sophomore goalkeeper Casey Murphy earned her third Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week award this season for her recent string of performances in the wins over Penn State, Minnesota and Iowa.

The offense has also gotten into gear in the last few matches and received another boost against Iowa when junior forward Madison Tiernan scored her first goal of the season.

With all the parts seeming to come together at the right time, the Knights hope to keep the good vibes going as the biggest phase of the season begins.

“I’m really happy with how we have been playing, but like always, it’s about focusing on the next game,” said junior back Erin Smith. “Hopefully we can continue with what we have been doing and it’s always great to play at home.”

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

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