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Rutgers takes 1st place in Big Ten after golden-goal win over Illinois

The crunch time heroics of sophomore forward Amirah Ali and the Rutgers women’s soccer team has gone from conference shaking anomaly to a somewhat bizarrely routine occurrence at Yurcak Field. 

On Sunday, the Scarlet Knights (9-1-4, 5-0-2) went to overtime for the eighth straight game, and once again it was Ali that hit the golden goal for Big Ten win number five and Ali’s conference leading 10th goal.

The courageous win came on a day in which the team wore all pink in celebration of its #fearless campaign. The promotion started last year and is focused on advocating for both breast cancer awareness and mental health wellness for women.

“If you come to our soccer games, you’ll see it's such a family atmosphere and everyone’s included. There’s tailgates, there's people from all different walks of life here and we just want everyone to come and be a part of it," said director of operations Trish Dipaolo. "We just want girls to come here and this to be an outlet for everyone to just come and be a part of our family and be fearless with us.” 

The promotion filled bleachers at Yurcak Field for the type of game Rutgers fans have come to expect this year. 

The defense recorded it’s sixth shutout of the season and third against a Big Ten opponent.

“We strive to get shutouts every game as much as we can. There’s a few times when we fell short, but it's a trend that's going upwards," said senior backfielder Madison Pogarch. "I think we’re really locked in and I think we’ve really done a good job to shut other people down and not give up any opportunities.” 

Against an Illinois team that went into this game coming off back-to-back shutout wins, the offense continued its struggles in regulation, as the Knights have now scored only 1 goal in regulation over the past four games. 

Fortunately for head coach Mike O’Neill and his team, they haven’t needed goals in regulation, as the combination of exceptional defense and the leading goal scorer in the conference doing most of her damage in overtime, has kept them undefeated in the Big Ten — despite their low scoring.

Ali has accounted for almost half of the team’s total goals scored this season. The next highest scorer behind Ali is sophomore forward Nneka Moneme with 3 and no other player on the roster has scored more than twice.

“We’re not trying to put added pressure on people. The game will tell us when we need to do something but do we want to finish more of the chances we get? Yes. Do we want to capitalize on set pieces? Yes. Would we like a few more people to score goals? Yes and they’re in position, so we just need to capitalize on the chances that we get,” O'Neill said.

When all was said and done after another long and down to the wire match, Rutgers sits alone at the top of the Big Ten with 17 points and the best overall record. Nebraska’s position at first place is now in the rear view mirror, as it suffered a loss and a tie in its last two games.

The Knights’ most emergent challenger for first place is now Penn State, who has surged over previous weeks with three straight wins and are in second place, just two points behind Rutgers.

With the win against the Fighting Illini now in the books, the Knights are now back on the road, as much has yet to be determined in the final four games of the season. Ohio State, who are still in contention for first place, just four points behind, will host Rutgers this Friday.

Then on Sunday, a matchup against the Nittany Lions could all but determine the fate of the Big Ten. The late season matchup against Penn State will be the latest entry in a rivalry that has seen matchups with major regular season and postseason implications since the Knights joined the Big Ten.

After the matchup on Sunday, Rutgers’ schedule winds down for the end of the season. The Knights will face the bottom of the conference in Michigan State and Purdue in their final two games before postseason action begins.

“We know it's a tough road trip, but we can only control what we can control. Life in the Big Ten is travel ... but we’ll focus on getting our legs back and then we will focus on Ohio State later in the week,” O’Neill said.

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

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