The Huskers walked into the friendly confines of Barbara Hibner Stadium on Sunday as the underdog. They were young and scrappy, willing to sacrifice bodily harm. They waited years to return to the Big Ten Tournament. Frustrations of three consecutive losing seasons bubbled for the few on the roster that experienced them. When referee Alex Beehler sounded the opening whistle, the underdog ran loose.
Forward Eleanor Dale’s half-volley in the 9th minute started an onslaught and the Buckeyes never caught their breath. A brace for Dale and goals from Abbey Schwarz and Sarah Weber saw Nebraska through in a 4-0 win over the No. 25 Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals. It was the second-largest margin of victory in conference tournament history and punched Nebraska’s ticket to Columbus, Ohio, for Thursday’s semifinal.
“To get a shutout is fantastic,” Nebraska head coach John Walker said afterwards. “Getting the quick start, that was a big thing that we talked about was playing the game on our terms.”
Ohio State came to Lincoln earlier this season and the two played to a 2-2 draw. Nebraska played from behind in that game, conceding the first goal and then again in the second half. The Huskers answered before halftime and then equalized in the game’s final minutes. The two tied in the final Big Ten standings but Nebraska earned the No. 4 seed on tiebreakers. With that came the right to host a Big Ten Tournament game at Hibner Stadium for the first time. The Huskers last played in the tournament in 2018, when they beat Ohio State on penalty kicks. Instead of replicating the call-and-answer format of their earlier meeting, Nebraska kept calling and overwhelmed the lines.
Nebraska attacked early and took advantage when an Ohio State goal was ruled offsides. Dale chested a pass from Weber, turned and fired from about 20 yards out. Ohio State goalkeeper Molly Pritchard was too far off her line to do anything about it.
“We watched film and saw the keeper had a bit of a high line,” Dale said. “As soon as I got it I thought I’m just going to go for it and, yeah, it paid off.”
The Huskers doubled their lead 10 minutes later when a corner kick trickled to the near post and Schwarz flicked it into the top of the net with the outside of her foot. Nebraska defended the following half hour with an assured midfield and strong back line. The Buckeyes rarely found enough space to threaten in attack and went to halftime frustrated.
Dale doubled her tally in the 57th minute with a header off a corner kick from Lauryn Anglim. But the Huskers didn’t park the bus with a three-goal lead and a half hour remaining. Instead, Emma Prososki drove at the defense with a powerful, elusive run and laid a pass off for Weber. The Huskers’ top scorer faked a shot to her right and drove left with a one-time left-footed shot. The diving goalkeeper got a hand on it but no amount of effort could stop it, or Nebraska.
“To be in this spot and to play that well against a top opponent,” Weber said afterwards. “I’m just so proud of our team, everyone gave 110% today.”
The Huskers led with offense but shut down Ohio State in the final third when needed. Samantha Hauk kept the clean sheet with seven saves. Defender Nicola Hauk blocked shots and crosses and wingback Jordan Zade stepped in front of an opportunistic pass and cleared it for a corner in the final 12 minutes. Gwen Lane blocked a cross from a short corner with 10 minutes left. While the Buckeyes recovered the rebound the following shot sailed well wide of the net.
The Huskers huddled among each other in scattered circles at the final whistle. They scrapped through some growing pains and frustrations this season to get back into the Big Ten Tournament. They wanted to host a quarterfinal and made the most of the opportunity––underdog title and all.
“I think that’s how we’re pitted by other teams but at the end of the day we’re Nebraska, we’re going to fight until the final whistle,” Dale said. “We believe in ourselves and that’s all that matters.”
Head coach John Walker reminded the Huskers after the game that they control their destiny. Regardless of title or previous results, Nebraska is off to Columbus, Ohio, for the Big Ten Tournament semifinals. It’s one game at a time, of course, but two wins from a Big Ten Tournament title and an automatic spot in the NCAA Tournament. Make no mistake, that’s what the Huskers want.
“If you’re in the Big Ten Tournament your goal should be to win it,” Walker said. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with articulating that, you say it in a humble way, you’re playing amazing teams, but if you just gloss over and talk about ‘Let’s just try to win the next game,’ I think you’re missing the whole part of competition at an elite level.”
It doesn’t get much more elite than what’s left. Nebraska will play top seed and No. 6-ranked Michigan State in the semifinals at Lower.com Stadium. The Spartans didn’t play Nebraska on their way to an outright regular-season conference championship. Beyond that lays a Big Ten Championship and possible NCAA Tournament spot.