Minnesota prepares for Auburn and the NCAA tournament

The Gophers haven’t played the Tigers since 2014 but they will meet in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

Erik Nelson

On Monday, the Gophers cheered and clapped after watching the results of the NCAA selection show. Minnesota (11-8-2) learned it would play Auburn (12-5-2) in the first round of the NCAA tournament on Friday. 

Head coach Stefanie Golan said she likes the matchup.

“They’re not going to be [too] direct,” Golan said of Auburn. “They’re going to be athletic. They’re going to be organized. It fits our team well, and it’s going to be a battle.”

Minnesota has a connection to Auburn. Gophers’ assistant coach Becky Fletcher spent five seasons as an assistant coach with Auburn under current Tigers’ head coach Karen Hoppa. During her time with the Tigers, Fletcher won three SEC West titles and earned a 58-32-11 record during that time.

The Gophers have played the Tigers twice in program history. Minnesota won the first meeting at Elizabeth Lyle Robbie Stadium 2-0 on Sept. 7, 1996. The teams didn’t face each other again until exactly 18 years later when Auburn evened the series with a 3-1 victory on Sept. 7, 2014. 

Golan said Auburn’s field, the Auburn Soccer Complex, is ideal for Minnesota because it’s similar to the field at Elizabeth Lyle Robbie Stadium.

“It’s a big field, which we like,” Golan said. “Our field here is big. We keep it big for a reason. The field plays fast. When we’re playing in a good rhythm, [it] works well for us.”

The Gophers might not be playing in the NCAA tournament if it weren’t for goalkeeper Maddie Nielsen. Nielsen did not concede a goal during the Big Ten tournament, and she hasn’t allowed a goal since Oct. 21.

Golan said Nielsen was instrumental during the tournament.

“Her best performance of the year to date had come against Rutgers in the [Big Ten] tournament,” Golan said. “They had four opportunities where they got in behind. Her timing of coming out and squashing those opportunities was fantastic.”

While the Gophers were 5-6-0 at Elizabeth Lyle Robbie Stadium in the regular season, Minnesota’s road record pushed it into the postseason. The Gophers finished the regular season and the Big Ten tournament with a road record of 5-2-1.

Forward April Bockin said Minnesota travels well, which translates to success away from home.

“This group has played better on the road than any of the other teams I’ve been on,” Bockin said. “That plays into our hands going into this tournament.”

Minnesota’s match against Auburn begins at 3 p.m. on Friday at the Auburn Soccer Complex in Auburn, Alabama. 

Bockin said the seniors’ previous NCAA tournament experience will help the freshmen and sophomores who will get their first moments of it on Friday.

“Having a strong senior class right now has helped,” she said. “We know what to expect. Bringing that experience along and helping to let the younger players know what it’s like is going to be huge for us.”