Michigan State defender Dante Morrissette dribbled loosely in his team’s own corner. A split second later, Morrissette was on the ground after Michigan defender Austin Swiech pounced with a crunching tackle. The senior quickly fired in a low cross met by Wolverine junior midfielder Kevin Buca, who took a delicate touch to move beyond the oncoming defense and fire a shot past the keeper into the left side of the net in the 54th minute.
That moment was all it took to seal a 1-0 win for No. 20 Michigan (6-3-1 Big Ten) over Michigan State (4-7-0) in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinal.
“As soon as the ball went in, I knew I was gonna be the first one to it,” Buca said. “I stepped in front of the defender. Luckily my touch took him out of the game, and (I) just smashed it across the goalie.”
The Spartans were the more dangerous side in the first half, with a lightning-quick counter attack and a well-coordinated press which gave Michigan’s players fits. Michigan State’s direct style of play seemed to surprise the Wolverines, who struggled to string together possessions and were caught flat-footed when they turned the ball over. Michigan also tried to press with mixed results.
“They pressed us in the first half and we talked about that at halftime,” Michigan coach Chaka Daley said. “We made it too easy for them. We played into their pressure instead of waiting for the pressure to be applied to us. We were late to the press, late to them, and they ended up turning us and putting it back on top of us.”
Michigan nearly had a goal before halftime when Buca went on a weaving dribbling run which drew in the Michigan State defense before he slipped sophomore forward Inaki Rodriguez in on goal. Rodriguez’s shot was saved by the Spartan keeper from less than 12 yards out.
“We could have had a couple others,” Daley said. “Kevin Buca not only scored the goal, but he had a really good day at the office.”
The Spartans lined up in a 4-4-2 formation and focused play through their star forward, Farai Mutatu. The Wolverines countered with a 4-3-3 formation, which saw them maintain more possession throughout the match.
Michigan State looked dangerous when they had numbers on the break, but were tame when in possession otherwise. In the second half, the Spartans relied on long balls and set pieces to generate chances. The contrasting styles of play made for a back-and-forth game which had more to offer than the 1-0 scoreline suggests.
“(Mutatu is) difficult to cope with for sure,” Daley said. “(You) want to keep him in front of you. If he gets one-on-one in space, he can cause you some problems. I think we did a decent job and (freshman defender) Jens (Hoff) did a decent job on his side for his first college start in the playoffs against Michigan State, a local rivalry game. It’s not easy when you have to go up against Farai.”
After halftime, Michigan dominated the game in both possession and chances created. Michigan State’s players struggled to deal with the Wolverines’ press and chance creation. Targeting the Spartan defenders in possession was a point of focus, which led to the slip-up that created the goal. Buca’s score was his third of the season, with all of the goals coming against Michigan State.
“This game was massive,” Buca said. “Beating the same team three times within a season is a great accomplishment, especially when it’s your local rival. I think morale-wise, this was really important for us.”
Michigan State’s best chance of the day came in the 72nd minute, when senior defender Jackson Ragen couldn’t control a bouncing ball. Mutatu nearly took advantage when he stole the ball, but sophomore goalkeeper Owen Finnerty rushed the shot by closing the angle and making a save on the volley.
The Spartans’ pressure at the end of the game was threatening, but they lacked the final ball on every attack. Michigan limited the quality of Michigan State’s chances and had some luck on their side seeing them through to the Big Ten Tournament semifinals.
“Those games are not easy,” Daley said. “They become really scrappy and tough and emotional, and all the kids know each other and it’s (about) bragging rights, so they’re always difficult games to play. But we’re fortunate we’re on the right side of it. I think based on our body of work in the season, we deserved to move on and get to the semifinal and get ourselves the opportunity (to play for the championship).”