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Rutgers falls to Michigan in Big Ten Tournament defeat

For a moment, the Rutgers women's soccer team was back from the dead.

Down 1-0 at home to Michigan with 90 seconds left in regulation, the Scarlet Knights (15-3-2, 8-2-1) searched desperately for an equalizer. The ball fell to the feet of senior forward Tiernny Wiltshire, who found the top left corner for a dramatic score.

But, overtime saw the Wolverines (16-4-1, 8-2-1) reclaim possession, and 6 minutes in they found a winner through Jayde Riviere. It was a 2-1 win for Michigan, and Rutgers will now remain without a Big Ten title for another year.

“I think we need to be a bit more confident in possession, whether that is on the ball or off the ball, and there were times today that we were not,” said head coach Mike O’Neill.

For much of the game, the Wolverines controlled the possession, breaking through 20 minutes before Wiltshire's goal when Sydney Shepherd headed a corner kick past sophomore goalkeeper Meagan McClelland on the near post. 

The same Knights that had cruised through the Big Ten regular season looked like they were completely out of ideas.

As if that weren’t enough, they also lost four players to injuries over the course of the game. In the 15th minute, sophomore back Shea Holland had to be helped off the field after suffering what appeared to be a leg injury.

In the second half, Rutgers also lost starters senior back Chantelle Swaby and junior forward Nneka Moneme. There is no word yet on their status or whether they’ll be available for the first round of the NCAA tournament next weekend.

The Knights’ injury woes forced O’Neill to adjust his tactics during the game, shifting junior defensive midfielder Gabby Provenzano into the backline to shore up the defense. While dealing with injuries is nothing new for this Rutgers team, it definitely had an effect on its overall play and cohesion.

“We had a couple of people injured and that changed the game a little bit,” O’Neill said. “We asked the players on the sideline to try and jump in and (when) the game has been going for 20 minutes it’s not easy to do that.”

Despite a heartbreaking elimination, the Knights are still in a good position heading into the NCAA Tournament. With an RPI ranking of 11, Rutgers is in prime position to earn home-field advantage for its first-round game. 

Given that it has won 11 of 13 games at Yurcak Field this year, playing at home will definitely be an advantage this time around.

But for now, the Knights will have to wait until the bracket is announced by the Selection Committee on Monday afternoon. They’re all but assured a spot, which will mark their sixth NCAA Tournament bid in six years of O’Neill’s tenure on the Banks.

Whoever they’re matched up with, the biggest issue right now isn’t a tactical one — it’s whether the team can get key players healthy in time for the tournament.

“For us, that experience (of adjusting to injuries) is going to be important because we don’t know the health of the players that came off,” O’Neill said.

Rutgers has made the NCAA Tournament every year since O’Neill took over for the program in 2013, with its best finish being a College Cup appearance in 2015. If it can get key players healthy in time, this year’s team is poised to make another run at the Final Four.

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

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