Gophers miss three-peat with loss in NCAA final

Minnesota had won the previous two NCAA titles.

Minnesota defenseman Milica McMillen watches Clarkson players celebrate their NCAA title win Sunday, March 23 at TD Bank Sports Center in Hamden, Conn. The Gophers won the previous two NCAA titles.

Image by Betsy Helfand

Minnesota defenseman Milica McMillen watches Clarkson players celebrate their NCAA title win Sunday, March 23 at TD Bank Sports Center in Hamden, Conn. The Gophers won the previous two NCAA titles.

by Betsy Helfand

HAMDEN, Conn. — Gophers sophomore defenseman Milica McMillen took a knee alone on the ice after the final buzzer sounded. She barely moved. She just watched the Clarkson players celebrate.

Minnesota’s women’s hockey team fell just short of its third consecutive national championship Sunday, losing 5-4 to Clarkson at the TD Bank Sports Center.

For the past two years, the Gophers have experienced the pinnacle of success. Now, after the loss, they’ve experienced the agony of defeat.

“It hurts pretty bad, but I think in retrospect, we [will] look back at this year, and [we will say], ‘Man, what a year,’” senior captain Bethany Brausen said.

Though the Gophers didn’t finish the season the way they wanted to, the team isn’t letting the title game loss define this year.

“Success for us is the embodiment and fulfillment of our values,” head coach Brad Frost said. “We didn’t win the biggest one here, but our kids were successful. They were so successful this year.”

A win would have been Minnesota’s sixth title in program history and its third in as many years.

“Obviously everyone wants to win that last game, so it stings a little, but I think we can be proud of what we’ve done this entire season,” senior forward Kelly Terry said. “We can’t be distracted by the fact that we lost this one, because we’ve had a great year.”

The Gophers were the No. 1 team in the country for the entire season, but they fell just short in their final game of the season.

“I think it could have [gone] either way.” Brausen said. “And that’s exactly the kind of game you want to finish with.”

Minnesota was forced to play catch-up for most of the game against Clarkson — rare territory for the team.

Gophers senior forward Sarah Davis gave Minnesota its only lead of the game at the 9:40 mark in the first period.

Minnesota played a markedly better first period Sunday than it did Friday in the Frozen Four semifinal against Wisconsin.

Frost said it took a few minutes for his team to get adjusted to Clarkson’s forecheck, but he felt the Gophers carried the play for a majority of the period.

The Golden Knights scored twice near the end of the first period and again at the beginning of the second period to bring the lead to 3-1.

“We normally start periods well and finish periods well, and this weekend, that obviously didn’t happen,” Frost said.

The Gophers made a run, though, as sophomore forward Maryanne Menefee and junior forward Rachael Bona scored within minutes of each other in the second period to erase the deficit.

“In any game, it’s going to have ebbs and flows like that,” Brausen said. “We were on the downside of that three or four times tonight.”

Clarkson broke through again 11:32 into the third period with a goal from Vanessa Plante, and it widened the lead a few minutes later with a breakaway goal from Shannon MacAulay.

Minnesota wouldn’t go away, though.

The Gophers got a late goal from senior defenseman Baylee Gillanders with less than four minutes left in the game to keep hope alive.

Minnesota pulled sophomore goaltender Amanda Leveille in the final minutes of the game but it wasn’t able to net a goal and complete the comeback.

This is just the Gophers’ second loss in the last two years, but Clarkson didn’t let that past success faze it.

“Minnesota’s won it two years in a row, but that didn’t mean anything to us,” MacAulay said. “We knew we were going to give them a game, and that’s what we did.”

Clarkson’s victory was the first NCAA women’s hockey title for any non-WCHA team.

“You can’t say we’re a better team than them or they’re better than us,” Clarkson co-head coach Matt Desrosiers said. “We happened to come out with the upper hand tonight. Maybe we play them 10 times and lose nine.”

But Sunday was Clarkson’s moment.

“Tonight, the big scoreboard said that we lost,” Frost said. “I would tell you that we won all year.

“This was an incredible team.”