BLOOMINGTON, Ind. - The Fighting Illini women's soccer team opened up Big Ten Tournament play this morning in historic proportions, advancing past Minnesota in the quarterfinals with a 3-2 penalty kick shootout victory. The Illini trailed 2-0 and were down a man for almost the entire match, but rallied to force overtime and down the Gophers in PK's.
"I am so proud of the heart that this team showed today," said head coach Janet Rayfield. "This will be one of those games that makes program history. The ones that stories are told about for years to come."
The Illini started the heavyweight bout swinging, efficiently moving the ball deep in Minnesota territory in the opening minutes. A nice cross-over move by Shayla Mutz in the fourth-minute freed space for a cross into the Gopher box where Vanessa DiBernardo's shot sailed just over the goal. DiBernardo recorded another near miss when she collected the ball off of a flip throw-in from Breece in which her shot missed right by inches.
Senior goalkeeper Steph Panozzo started in good form when she leaped high above the attacking Gophers on a corner kick just a minute later to snag the ball out of the air for her first save of the match. Panozzo once again displayed her athletic ability in the 31st-minute when she made a diving save to her left, negating a hard shot from Nicole Baier.
Momentum shifted to the Gophers in the 10th-minute when Amy Feher was red carded after tripping a Minnesota player from behind on a breakaway. Leading goal-scorer Taylor Uhl converted the PK for the Gophers while the Illini were forced to play with 10 players for the rest of the contest.
Just three minutes later, Minnesota's Allie Phillips hit a short cross deep in the box where Uhl's header sent the ball toward the near post an past Panozzo for the 2-0 advantage.
Illinois was knocked down but not out as they proved to have a fighter's spirit. Digging deep, the Orange and Blue responded in the 20th-minute off of a free kick taken by DiBernardo. The shot deflected off the wall, bounced over the charging keeper and found Aliina Weykamp on the far post who finished it off. The tally was Weykamp's first goal on the year.
Illinois nearly tied it going into half when Nicole Denenberg kicked a through ball to Breece, who outran the defender but shot just high.
"We made one tactical adjustment at half and then I told them to see the headline that would be written when they came back from a two goal deficit and down a player," said Rayfield. "It was about believing and fighting and this team showed what a team with those two things can do."
What followed set the stage for the Illini to indeed write their special headline. In the 66th-minute, Vanessa DiBernardo found Niki Read down the left-center of the field with a perfectly executed through ball. Read was able to out-pace and out-maneuver the lone defender and release a low shot to the far post and in for the equalizer. In addition, Niki continues her late season surge, having scored in three straight games. Furthermore, with the assist, DiBernardo has registered a point in the previous four matches.
Minnesota then proceeded to pick up their energy as they really pressured the Illini. In fact, the Gophers rattled off four shots in the two minute span following the Illinois goal.
With around 12 minutes left, the Illini defense continued to hold. Minnesota went on a three-v-two breakaway but the combo of Christina Farrell and Kassidy Brown thwarted the attack and kept Illinois tied at two.
DiBernardo tried to claim the lead with 10 minutes left when the junior's bending shot was saved by a fully extended and diving Cat Parkhill.
Illinois fans held their breath at the 87-minute mark when Minnesota sent a through ball into the Illinois box. However, Steph Panozzo rushed out, slid and grabbed the ball away with not a second to spare. Fans were once again on the edge of their seats with forty seconds left when Shayla Mutz got the ball on the left side of the Gopher box, but her shot went just high and the two squads went to overtime.
After two scoreless 10-minute periods, which saw freshman Nicole Breece obtain a yellow card, the Illini and Gophers went into a penalty kick shootout.
After Uhl started it off for the Gophers with a successful PK, freshman Taylore Peterson got the Illini on the right track with a precision shot to the corner. Goalkeeper Steph Panozzo then ignited the Illinois spark with a clutch save on Marissa Price's shot. Junior Kassidy Brown was up next and gave the Illini a 2-1 advantage heading into the third kickers. Minnesota's MacKenzie Misel then shot her PK off the left post, opening the door for Illinois. Weykamp added to her fantastic performance today with a successful shot to give the Illini a 3-1 lead. Tamara Strahota was up next and kept the Gophers alive with a well placed shot. Next, the tension continued to build after DiBernardo's shot was blocked and the score was now 3-2. Minnesota sent Taylor Wodnick to the line in a must make situation. Her shot went wide left and the Illini captured the historic comeback and advanced to the semifinals.
Illinois is now 3-1 in PK shootouts in Big Ten Tournament history and have advanced past the first round 11 of 13 times in the program's history. Also, today marked the first time in school history the Illini have produced back-to-back comebacks down 2-0 and either have won or advanced.
Next up in the semifinals, the Orange and Blue have earned a rematch with No. 1 seed Penn State, who is also No. 3 in the nation. Penn State downed No. 8 seed Iowa 2-0. Illinois and Penn State met in Champaign on Sept. 23, in which the Nittany Lions bested the Illini 4-0. Kickoff is scheduled for Friday, Nov. 2, at 9 a.m. CT.