When it comes to dramatic women's soccer games, Penn State seems to save its best for Michigan.
In a thrilling match that couldn’t be decided after two overtime periods, the Nittany Lions came from behind — again — to defeat the Michigan Wolverines 3-2 in penalty kicks after playing to a 1-1 draw in the third round of the NCAA tournament.
The match ended in the hands of Penn State's Erin McNulty after Michigan’s Holly Hein booted her team’s fifth and final penalty kick into the outstretched hands of the senior keeper, who sprawled right to make the save.
The win sends the Lady Lions to the quarterfinals on Friday night.
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“I was a little nervous,” said Penn State senior Christine Nairn. “I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t. But Erin McNulty is our number one and we have full faith in her.”
After Penn State’s Raquel Rodriguez began the shootout with a shot to the left that was blocked by Michigan keeper Haley Kopmeyer, the Wolverines scored first with a well-struck ball to the right that fooled McNulty, who dove left.
Whitney Church also tried left for the Nittany Lions and was also denied by Kopmeyer, who dove left and blocked the shot with her outstretched right hand.
Michigan’s Nkem Ezurike made it 2-0 in the shootout period when she blasted a shot left as McNulty again guessed wrong and dove right. That would be the last Michigan goal of the night.
“I was just trying to get in their head,” McNulty said of her mentality during the shootout. “I knew that once I made one stop it would give our team a little bit of momentum.”
Maddy Evans began the comeback in the shootout period just as she had done in regulation. Evans blasted the third Penn State shootout goal right by Kopmeyer to begin the run of three straight penalty goals.
Tani Costa and Maya Hayes followed by drilling their attempts to put Penn State in the lead, while McNulty stuffed all three of the Wolverines' remaining attempts by Lulu Haidar, Shelina Zadorsky and the last attempt by Hein.
Trailing 1-0 in the first half, Evans got the Nittany Lions on the board by converting a Nairn corner kick. Church redirected the ball toward the net and Evans finished the play just before the ball crossed the goal line.
The goal was redemptive for Evans, who was given a yellow card early in the first half for a takedown in the box that led to a Clare Stachel goal that gave Michigan the lead.
“At this point I don’t think that there’s anything more that can be thrown at us,” said coach Erica Walsh. “Every time we have to face a different challenge we overcome it with such grace and dignity and I’m just excited for the next challenge.”
When the teams met on Oct. 21, Penn State trailed Michigan 1-0 until Nairn tied the game with five minutes remaining in regulation. The tie clinched the Nittany Lions' 15th consecutive Big Ten regular season title.
“I thought it was a great game, a hard-fought game,” said Michigan coach Greg Ryan. “I’m just so proud of my team for the way they battled throughout.”
“I was pretty confident,” said Kopmeyer, a fifth-year senior, after the game with tears in her eyes. “I’m so proud of my girls. Everybody puts it on the line every night … I couldn’t be more proud of this group.”
Penn State will play Duke at 7 p.m. Friday at Jeffery Field in search of its first College Cup appearance since 2005.
“(Nairn) has done it for us all season,” Walsh said. “I asked her to play left back and she just shook her head and said, ‘Sure coach, whatever you need.’ And that’s just been their mentality all season long.”
“Even when they know I’m crazy,” Walsh said with a smile, “they still follow. And I just want to thank them for that.”
Despite Michigan’s early lead, the Nittany Lions dominated the game statistically. Penn State outshot the Wolverines 11-4 in the first half and 26-10 in the game. Penn State also earned nine corner kicks to zero for Michigan.
Hayes nearly ended the game in the second overtime after she split two defenders inside the Michigan penalty box at 102:16, but her left-footed shot soared over the crossbar.
Michigan’s Stachel almost scored earlier in the game when she ripped a shot off the left post at 11:48.