Gophers open Big Ten tourney tonight

The sixth-seeded Gophers take on the three-seed, Illinois at 8 p.m. in St. Paul.

Nick Gerhardt

Minnesota has some unfinished business to take care of tonight against Illinois in the Big Ten tournament.

The Gophers (9-8-1 overall, 5-5-0 Big Ten) return to the tournament as the No. 6 seed after a one-year absence and face the No. 3 seed Fighting Illini (11-5-1 overall, 6-3-1 Big Ten) this evening at Elizabeth Lyle Robbie Stadium in front what expects to be a pro-Minnesota crowd.

Illinois beat the Gophers 1-0 earlier in the season and leads the all time series eight to four. Minnesota hasn’t defeated the Illini since 2005 when it scored a 2-1 victory at home.

Despite their lack of success against Illinois, the Gophers hold a 3-2 series advantage at home. It’s there Minnesota will try to exact revenge against the Illini who knocked them out of the tournament in 2005.

“Now we have a chance to wipe the slate clean,” assistant coach Kate Cortis said. “Our team has always done well as underdogs at home.”

Junior midfielder Kaitlin Wagner said having a home field advantage will help the team because they don’t have worry about a day of travel wearing them down before the match and added that the fan support at home will be huge.

Since the two teams met Oct. 5 the Gophers have experienced the growing pains of being a young team, but now appear to have moved beyond their early season struggles.

“We were a totally different team at that time,” coach Mikki Denney Wright said. “We’re completely healthy for the first time and that should bode well for our midfield.”

Minnesota went without the services of Wagner in the first tilt. Junior midfielder Kelsey Hood and sophomore midfielder Kelly Wepking have battled injuries all season and appear healthy for the tournament.

A healthy midfield proves especially important against an Illinois team that plays only three midfielders and with the Gophers playing up to five at times in the midfield feel they can exploit that area.

“Our wide midfielders will be an effective piece as we build our attack through our width in the midfield,” Denney Wright said.

The defense has also transformed since that game as Minnesota has only allowed one goal in its last four games.

“It’s taken us awhile to get there, but we’ve been a tough defensive team in the latter half,” Denney Wright said.

The Gophers swapped the positions of freshmen defenders Kylie Kallman and Jennie Clark three weeks ago and the results have shown in that time.

Kallman and Clark, along with fellow freshman defender Julie Rezac, will have to find a way to slow down the Illini attack and contain 2006 Big Ten offensive of player of the year Ella Masar.

“We think we can handle her. We have to be aware of her at all times,” Kallman said.

“We’ll have to watch her for 90 minutes,” Cortis said. “She’ll sneak away from you for 30 seconds and she’ll score a goal.”

Masar didn’t score in the first game but her team scored six minutes into the match which exposed Minnesota’s susceptibility to early goals.

Opponents have outscored the Gophers 10-7 in the first half while Minnesota has scored 21 goals in the second half compared to just eight for their foes.

In their final game of the season against Iowa the Gophers made one mistake on defense and the Hawkeyes capitalized by scoring in the 32nd minute in the first half.

Minnesota will need to limit miscues in the first half against Illinois to ensure success.

“We are going to have to play our best game of the year,” Denney Wright said.