LINCOLN, Neb. — Upon learning that her team would play Nebraska in the first round of the NCAA tournament, Gophers women’s soccer coach Sue Montagne said she liked their chances.
Granted, the Huskers were ranked sixth in the nation and had yet to lose a game this season, but Montagne thought they hadn’t really been tested.
Well, the Gophers took care of that, taking Nebraska through two overtime periods and into the closing seconds of sudden death before falling 3-2. Nebraska’s next opponent will be Duke, which defeated Virginia 3-2 on Saturday.
“We’ve known all season that we can play the way we played (Sunday),” Montagne said. “It wasn’t magic, we weren’t playing above our heads. That’s just the way we play soccer.”
To say this game was close is an understatement. Nebraska dominated most statistical categories, but Minnesota’s tight defense — especially around the goal — kept the game within reach.
The two teams started fast, combining for four goals in the first 25 minutes of the game. Nebraska’s Kari Uppinghorse — the team’s leading scorer — struck first, somehow guiding the ball through a crowd of players in front of the net two minutes into the game. But Minnesota’s scoring leader, Jennifer McElmury, responded with a perfectly placed shot in the lower-left corner past the diving Nebraska goalkeeper 10 minutes later.
Early on, Nebraska’s corner kicks gave the Gophers fits. Jenny Benson gave Nebraska a short-lived lead on a corner kick, making the Huskers two-for-two from there and forcing Montagne to make a rare early switch in goal. Senior Teresa O’Hearn came in for freshman starter Dana Larson after only 25 minutes.
Montagne’s strategy paid off. Not only did the Gophers’ Corinne Bolder tie the game 30 seconds after the replacement, but O’Hearn also held the Huskers scoreless for more than 120 minutes.
“I was really excited (to go in),” O’Hearn said. “The coach told me before the game there was a possibility I might start. I was glad I got to go in and show them what I can do.”
Senior defender Mikki Denney was among those who were impressed with O’Hearn, who shared time with Larson early in the season before losing the starting position she held for most of her career.
“With the adversity she’s gone through this season, to come into this caliber of game and play so incredibly is a tribute to her,” Denney said. “I look at her as the MVP.”
The second half was a mirror image of the first, as both teams seemed to shift attention to defense after a wild opening period. Nebraska started the second half in much the same fashion, peppering the Minnesota net with shots. This time they were stifled by O’Hearn.
But she wasn’t out there alone.
The Huskers’ Lindsay Eddleman outran Gophers defenders down the field on a breakaway before delivering a perfect crossing pass to Isabelle Morneau. But a momentary hesitation by Morneau gave the Gophers’ Nicole Lee enough time to make a sliding save on the ball.
That play began a series of back-and-forth exchanges, but neither team was able to convert solid scoring opportunities into goals.
The Gophers substituted freely in the second half, countering Nebraska’s speed with fresh legs, but both teams were noticeably hampered by poor game conditions. The temperature hovered at just above freezing throughout the game, and a snowfall from the night before left the field a sloppy mess.
“You never really knew what the ball was going to do, which way it was going to slide,” McElmury said. “But (both teams) just went out there and kept playing tough and aggressive soccer.”
Minnesota had a pair of shots at the win in the closing minutes of the second half — a one-on-one in front of the goal by Lee, and a flying shot by McElmury — but neither panned out. Nebraska also put together an array of late shots, but the teams remained tied at the end of regulation. Still, though covered in mud and grass from head to toe, no player on the field seemed willing to quit.
Overtime brought out the best in both teams. But for a while, it looked like the game would never end.
After the first period of sudden death, it appeared the game would be settled in a shoot-out, where both teams get five open shots at goal and the team with the most goals wins the game. A shoot-out is the result of two scoreless overtime periods. But senior forward Erin Hussey said the team didn’t want to go that route.
“We wanted to win the game in overtime,” she said. “I don’t think anyone wants to finish (a game) in a shoot-out.”
But O’Hearn knew someone who loves a good shoot-out: herself.
“They’re fun,” O’Hearn said. “I had faith in my teammates that we could score, but if they didn’t, we go to a shoot-out. That’s all right with me.”
Uppinghorse — who returned to the lineup after twisting her knee early in the first overtime — ended all the speculation, winning the game with 1:17 left in sudden death.
After taking a pass in front of the goal, Uppinghorse put a hip fake on her defender and sailed the ball in the upper-right corner, well out of the reach of O’Hearn.
“It hit the post and went in,” O’Hearn said. “How much closer can you get than that? I misjudged it a little bit, but I really give her credit. She made a great shot.”
The Gophers’ fourth season may have ended on a low note, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.
“We put in our time, and we’ve done a great job,” O’Hearn said. “Soccer has been a huge part of our lives, but we’ve played our last game. We don’t have it anymore, so we just have to move on.”