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Rutgers splits 1st pair of Big Ten games at home

Redemption time came around for the Rutgers women’s soccer team on Friday night. The No. 13 Scarlet Knights (7-1-1) captured a 2-0 win against Minnesota in Rutgers’ first conference game of the season. But after seven straight wins, the team put an end to its undefeated season, losing to Wisconsin 2-1, Sunday afternoon.

In the first 15 minutes of the game, an assist from senior midfielder Taylor Aylmer saw junior forward Amirah Ali score the Knights’ first goal in Big Ten action. A short 5 minutes later, junior forward Nneka Moneme added another goal for Rutgers in a thrilling charge to the net.

Once the whistle was blown, the Knights took immediate control of the ball and held nothing back through the first half of the match. Rutgers took advantage of every opportunity for a shot at goal and unlike previous games, they’ve been able to get the job done.

“We definitely came out with more energy than we had in past games because we wanted to get that win,” Moneme said. “Our motivation for the win is why we came out with that energy.”

Moneme brought that energy as she recorded 3 of the 4 shots on goal. Ali was the only other Knight to take a shot on the Golden Gophers (1-6-2), which ended up in the back of the net.

In the second half, Rutgers felt some added pressure from Minnesota, struggling to get out of its own end. The Knights showed more hesitation and lost their control of the game, but managed to hold the fort down until the clock hit zero.

“We knew that they were a good team,” said head coach Mike O’Neill. “It was important for us to get the message across that when you start Big Ten play, all the records are out the window and it's what happens in conference.”

Sophomore goalkeeper Meagan McClelland kept the energy high for Rutgers with aggressive saves, marking her sixth shutout of the season. As one of the top goalkeepers in the conference, McClelland left no stone unturned. She launched herself into the air on corner kicks and collided hard with a couple of Gophers players in an effort to limit Minnesota’s chances of seizing the ball.

“We like to say there's nothing like Big Ten play,” McClelland said. “Once it's that time, we're ready to go and it's just a lot of excitement.”

With the conference season underway, the Knights understand that every game and every win is up for grabs in order to secure a slot in the NCAA Tournament. Despite the postseason outlook, Rutgers is only focused on preparing for the next game.

“I think we had a great out of conference, but we were talking about how Big Ten is a new season," McClelland said. 

Under 90-degree weather and a slippery field, the Knights found themselves running in circles to get possession of the ball, on Sunday afternoon. The heat didn’t just impact the players, but the crowd too was fired up after some questionable calls from the refs during the second half of the game.

The crowd’s energy was silenced once Rutgers’ fate was sealed in an overtime penalty kick from the Badgers (6-2-1). 

“Our motto in the second half was just to come out stronger to play how we know how to play,” said junior midfielder Gabby Provenzano. “We got one in there and we took it to them a lot. An unfortunate goal at the end that they called. Unlucky, but we’ve got to keep our heads up and move on.”

Senior back Amanda Visco played both sides of the field, scoring the Knights' lone goal and going one-on-one with Wisconsin to save the ball in an empty box. 

A corner kick from Aylmer opened up the chance for Visco to head the ball into the net, tying up the game 1-1 in the 50th minute. 

“When she scored, we preached on first five,” Provenzano said. “The next 5 minutes were going to be our best minutes. We brought it in and said, ‘Okay, this is our time. Let’s go.’ Everyone got more locked and had more confidence.”

But, 20 minutes later, Visco found herself racing back to the net in a field that left one of the Badgers' players and McClelland wide open. After sweeping past senior back Chantelle Swaby, Wisconsin went one-on-one with McClelland in the box. 

The Badgers shot, but McClelland saved. The team shot again, but luckily Visco was there to deny the ball before McClelland got back on her feet to hold it.

A tied game led Rutgers and Wisconsin into overtime, and for most of the time, it looked like the game was about to head into a second overtime. But, a referee call gave away a penalty kick to the Badgers that McClelland was unable to save.

The Knights’ defense was put to work as Wisconsin outshot Rutgers 18 to 7. Not to mention, McClelland almost hit double-digit saves with nine saves throughout the game.

“We struggled a bit in possession,” O’Neill said. “First half was not good at all. We found ourselves defending a lot because we gave the ball away too easily. Second half was a little better, but we have to keep the ball better and take care of the ball.”

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

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