Yet again, the analysts and so-called ‘experts’ got it wrong as Damon Rensing and the Spartans produced heroics by the lake to claim their third Big Ten Tournament title, and their first since 2008.
It was a tremendous tournament from start to finish. Game One saw the exit of my favorites Indiana, as Michigan State did the double over the Hoosiers with a thoroughly deserved 2-1 score.
Indiana looked flat, and they also came up against the best center back pairing in the league, Ryan Keener and Kevin Cope. If those guys lack anything in ability, they make up with pure heart and dedication to the cause. It’s wonderful to think that both Keener and Cope should be back in green next season, meaning Michigan State’s foundation is solid heading into 2013.
Bob Warming’s Penn State met the Spartans in the semi-final in a No. 5 vs. No. 1 matchup. The seedings didn’t reflect the pattern of the match as Michigan State played a smart, disciplined 90, stifling the Nittany Lions. Penn State will be disappointed that they didn’t trouble Zach Bennett in the MSU goal more often, and they’ll also rue some soft defending, particularly for Cody Henderson’s opener just after the restart. Let’s take nothing away from Michigan State, though.
The final pitted Michigan State against their arch rivals Michigan, in what was an enthralling match. The wind showed up in full force and did its best to ruin the spectacle, but credit to the players for getting the ball on the deck and playing.
It was the perfect matchup for Michigan State. They were desperate to avenge their loss to the Wolverines, a loss that eliminated their hopes of a big ten regular season title, but they also avoided a match against hosts Northwestern, a team that would have attracted a huge home following on a lovely sunny Sunday afternoon.
After nearly a full half of wind-assisted pressure, the Spartans finally unlocked the Wolverines’ defense with an absolutely splendid strike from Adam Montague. When the ball fell kindly for the big center forward, there was no hesitation shown as he hit a thunderbolt past Adam Grinwis from outside the area.
The 2nd half gave Michigan their shot to pounce with the wind at their backs, and like the Spartans, they left it late to do so. The goal was a lovely combination, a long throw and two headers that sent T.J. Roehn clear through on goal. Zach Bennett raced from his line, but the front man nipped in first and got a slight touch to guide the ball home. Ecstasy for Michigan, frustration and heartbreak for the Spartans as overtime beckoned.
The five minute break that followed gave Damon Rensing a chance to reassure and re-energize his troops ahead of OT. Crucially, his team had the wind for the opening ten minutes.
The Spartans huffed and puffed, but Michigan’s defense was standing tall, and in particular Kofi Opare, who was a man-mountain. But eventually Chaka Daily and the Wolverines were undone by a moment of pure class by Freshman Sean Conerty.
With just two minutes to play, Fatai Alashe found Conerty in space on the left flank. The crowd was roaring for Conerty to have a shot, and that’s exactly what he did, unleashing an absolute belter from distance that nestled beautifully into the top corner! Game Over!
It was harsh on Michigan, but congratulations to Damon Rensing, his staff and his players. The Spartans produced three complete, tactically astute games and deserved their honor.
Credit must also go to Northwestern as they were marvelous hosts.
Four Big Ten teams have now qualified for the dance, Indiana, Michigan State, Michigan and Northwestern. Penn State’s RPI meant that they narrowly missed out on an NCAA appearance, which is harsh given that they co-shared the Big Ten regular season.
The NCAA games kick start this weekend and we wish all four teams the very best of luck!