Rutgers falls in Big Ten Tournament final for second consecutive season

After defeating two powerhouse programs to reach the Big Ten Tournament final for the second consecutive year, the Rutgers women’s soccer team lost in a heartbreaker to Minnesota.

“I feel sorry for them, because I know how much they wanted to win this,” said head coach Mike O’Neill. “At the same time, the coaching staff is very, very proud of what the team has accomplished.”

Ending the regular season as the seventh best team record-wise in the Big Ten, the Scarlet Knights (11-4-6, 4-2-5) weren't projected to be much of a factor in the conference tournament as the squad barely qualified for the postseason.

Only the eight teams with the best in conference records out of the 14 schools in the Big Ten make it to the conference tournament, yet the seventh-seeded Knights have proved that ranking means very little when it comes to game performance.

Rutgers vanquished the No. 2 seed, Penn State, by a score of 2-0 in the first round of the tournament last Sunday. After that upset victory in Happy Valley, the Knights carried that momentum into this weekend as they flew halfway across the country to Minnesota for the final two rounds.

Friday, Rutgers faced co-Big Ten regular season champions, No. 17 Northwestern with the aim of taking an early lead.

In corresponding fashion, the side from New Jersey struck first less than seven minutes into the game, through junior forward Colby Ciarrocca.

The sequence began when sophomore defender Kenie Wright received a throw-in from senior captain Madison Tiernan on the left flank of the opposing third. Wright proceeded to deliver a beautiful floating through ball to Ciarrocca, who in turn placed a concise shot in the back of the net.

No one knew it at the time, but that showing of offensive prowess would be all the Knights needed in order to win the match.

Northwestern (14-2-4) made sure it wasn't easy, outshooting the Rutgers, 5-1, in the second half and got close to scoring several times in the final 45 minutes. The last play of the match saw the Wildcats’ midfielder Nandi Mehta fire one into the box from midfield, but senior goalkeeper Alana Jimenez sprinted up to secure the ball and the Knights’ win.

The semifinal victory was Rutgers’ 11th shutout of the year and the second triumph over Northwestern.

“The coaching staff is so proud of the way the team grinded that game out,” O’Neill said. “When games get close you need to have that passion to win and the ladies showed that.”

The Knights had to replicate that gritty performance last Sunday against top ranked Minnesota in the Big Ten final to have a chance at a title that eluded them a year ago.

In the game against the Golden Gophers, it was Rutgers that was playing catch up at the end of the first frame.

With about 10 minutes remaining in the initial half, freshman defender Nikki Albrecht played a pretty pass that slipped by the Knights' defensive line.

Gophers forward Sydney Squires was on the other side of it, and she quickly launched a shot that found the net and put Minnesota on top.

The two teams would go goalless for almost the next 40 minutes of action, leaving the score at 1-0.

The dearth of goals through 80 minutes wasn’t for lack of trying though, as Rutgers attempted 10 shots with four landing on goal. Meanwhile Minnesota took 15 shots, including eight on target.

After all that back and forth flowing play, the Knights were finally able to equalize in the 83rd minute.

Freshman defender Chantelle Swaby had been switched to forward in a tactical move by O’Neill and fellow freshman, midfielder Taylor Aylmer found her classmate open when it mattered. Swaby scored with ease and Rutgers justifiably celebrated as the team had fought back mightily to tie up the match.

The 1-1 mark would not hold for long though as Minnesota midfielder Emily Heslin notched a goal 67 seconds later.

A deflected cross on a Golden Gopher attack rolled to an open Heslin at the top of the 18-yard box, and she zipped the ball into the goal’s top right corner to halt the Knights’ tournament run just short of a title.

Although the team’s chances at a Big Ten championship barely failed, Rutgers most likely will still have an opportunity to compete for a national title in the NCAA Tournament.

The Knights will find out Monday, as the NCAA Division I Women’s Soccer Selection Show is scheduled for 4:30 p.m.

Rutgers is looking to nab its fifth-straight tournament bid, which would also be the squad’s seventh in nine years, and 11th overall.

O’Neill feels the Knights proved themselves in the tournament, but overall, his attitude is one of pride in his players.

“The team has been resilient all year long, from training to matches,” O’Neill said. “All you can do as a coach is ask your team to come out every day, work hard, and that’s what they’ve done all year long.”

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

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