Katie O’Donnell looks at Penn State’s Big Ten tournament semifinal game as a “redemption tour.”
Her team’s opponent, Northwestern, knocked off the Nittany Lions in the same round last season — one year after Penn State captured its first-ever conference tournament title in 2015. O’Donnell described the loss as heartbreaking and said the team used the setback as motivation in the regular-season matchup with Northwestern this year.
Now, the second-seeded Nittany Lions (15-2) will look to recapture the Big Ten tournament championship, and they’ll again have to go through No. 3-seed Northwestern (9-8) in the semifinals at 8:30 p.m. Friday in College Park, Md., to earn that opportunity.
“Every single game from this point forward is kind of do-or-die for every team,” O’Donnell said. “So it really does have a big impact on how we’re going to go on for postseason in the tournament.”
To reach the championship game, Penn State will need to beat Northwestern for the second time this season. The Nittany Lions earned a 14-13 win over the Wildcats on April 13, thanks to a balanced offensive attack as Northwestern shadowed Penn State playmaker Steph Lazo.
While Lazo — who leads the team in scoring with 80 points on 43 goals and 37 assists — did not score or record an assist in the victory, her presence helped open the door for a few others to step up. Kelly Daggett scored four goals and finished with a team-high two assists, for instance.
“Kelly Daggett came out of nowhere for us,” Penn State’s Abby Smucker said.
Added coach Missy Doherty: “In a game like Northwestern you really need everybody to step up. When you get to the Big Ten tournament and NCAAs, you need more than just your top kids stepping up. But we’re excited to see who emerges and who has their best game, and I think that’s a strength of our team.”
Lazo was one of three players to record a hat trick in Penn State’s win over Northwestern in the semifinals of the 2015 Big Ten tournament before finishing with one goal and a team-high two assists to help the Nittany Lions beat Ohio State in the first-ever championship game.
Lazo has fueled Penn State’s offense this season and thrived in the postseason last year. In the team’s win over No. 2 Florida in the second round of the 2016 NCAA tournament, Lazo scored the game-winning goal in overtime to go with her game-high three assists.
“She always does a great job scoring some game-winners for us — some clutch goals, some clutch hustle plays,” Doherty said.
Penn State made a run to the final four in 2016, and the Nittany Lions will get their first taste of the postseason in the Big Ten tournament Friday.
As O’Donnell said, every game now is “do-or-die.”
“You have that pressure of competing in a lose-you’re out situation so we’re ready for that challenge,” Doherty said. “I think we thrive under pressure and hopefully we’ll continue to do so.”