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Late penalty kick dooms Wolverines’ upset bid at Penn State

Ruby Wallau/Daily
Junior forward Nkem Ezurike scored Michigan’s lone goal of the afternoon against Penn State, giving Michigan a 1-0 lead. But the lead fell in the 85th minute. Buy this photo

By Alejandro Zúñiga, Daily Sports Writer
Published October 21, 2012

Five minutes away from completing a stunning upset over No. 4 Penn State, the No. 17 Michigan women’s soccer team conceded an equalizing tally that allowed the Nittany Lions to earn a 1-1 draw on Sunday afternoon.

The result mathematically eliminates Michigan from the regular-season title. It also guarantees that Penn State (9-0-1 Big Ten, 15-2-1 overall) will finish first in the conference or win the Big Ten championship for the 15th-straight year.

Junior forward Nkem Ezurike and the Wolverines drew first blood in State College. In the 60th minute, junior forward Shelby Chambers-Garcia got her head on a long free kick and flicked it over Penn State’s defense. Ezurike controlled the ball and chipped it over goalkeeper Erin McNulty. It dropped into the back of the net to give Michigan (7-1-2, 13-3-2) the improbable advantage.

“The goal came from a whole group effort,” Ezurike said. “We all played well the whole game.”

After the go-ahead tally, the Wolverines tried to preserve their lead by defending with all 11 players. But Penn State’s prolific attack continued to create numerous scoring chances, and the team fired 16 shots in the second half. Senior goalkeeper Haley Kopmeyer responded to the challenge, recording 12 saves.

“I just want to do everything I can to keep the team in the game,” Kopmeyer said. “I got a couple of good saves and momentum was swinging my way.”

With under five minutes left to play, the Nittany Lions finally found the back of the net. After a shot caromed off the post, a Penn State player was brought down from behind during the ensuing scramble and the referee awarded a penalty kick. Midfielder Christine Nairn took the shot, and the high effort flew inches past Kopmeyer’s fingertips for her 13th goal of the season. The tally sent the game into overtime, but the two extra periods ended without any more late dramatics.

With a strong wind at its back in the second half, Penn State relentlessly pressured the Wolverines’ defense. The Nittany Lions’ attack, featuring four different players who have scored five goals or more this season, launched 31 shots against Michigan. But Kopmeyer and the back line held the best scoring offense in the country (3.25 goals per game) to just a single tally, Penn State’s lowest offensive output of the year.

“(Penn State) beats teams by a lot of goals,” Michigan coach Greg Ryan said. “Our defense was very, very solid today.”

It was a similar result to Michigan’s Sept. 2 contest at then-No. 11 Long Beach State. The 49ers scored late to steal a game that the Wolverines had led. After Michigan fell just short of an upset once again, Ryan sounded notably let down.

“We’re disappointed,” he said. “We were four minutes away from winning. It would have been huge to beat Penn State.”

Though Michigan came tantalizingly close to giving Penn State its first conference loss of the season, Ryan was proud of his squad for giving the Nittany Lions their only blemish in the Big Ten. More importantly, the draw earned Michigan a key point that moved it closer to its best regular-season finish since 2002. If the Wolverines defeat Illinois this weekend or if Ohio State loses or ties Indiana, Michigan will finish second in the conference.