Blue takes Big Ten titleFew people may have expected Michigan to win all three of its games in the Big Ten Tournament, but the athletes and coaches themselves were always confident that they would succeed.

The fourth-seeded Michigan field hockey team (3-3 Big Ten, 15-7 overall) capped off a brilliant weekend with a 3-0 win over second-seeded Indiana (4-2 Big Ten, 16-4 overall) on Sunday. Now the Big Ten Tournament champions for the second straight year, Michigan is guaranteed a spot in the NCAA playoffs.

The Michigan offense struck early, and the defense, led by senior Lori Hillman, never let up. Only 1:29 into the game, freshman forward Erin Dallas stole the ball away from Indiana and scored a wrap-around goal.

Sophomore forward Lucia Belassi helped make junior goalie Beth Riley more comfortable with a tip-in goal off a penalty corner at 22:36 of the first half. The Wolverines, who had been putting in considerable practice time improving their conversion rate on corner opportunities, made all that work pay off in the tournament. Four of their eight tournament goals came off of corners.

Junior forward Mary Fox put the final nail in the coffin with just 30 seconds left in the half, slipping the ball into the goal from the right of the cage. For Riley, who performed phenomenally all weekend, three goals were more than enough. She blanked Indiana for her fifth shutout of the season.

“(Riley’s performance) was exceptional all weekend,” Michigan coach Nancy Cox said. “She stayed at home, and when she needed to she did a nice job taking one-on-ones. She made very good decisions throughout the course of the weekend.”

The entire team played consistently strong field hockey throughout the tournament.

“It’s a huge victory for the program,” Cox said. “This could be the beginning of something really special. Our kids have overcome tremendous adversity this fall. Each day they come to practice and work as hard as they can and keep improving. They’ve embraced what we’ve asked them to do.”

Their hard work and achievements didn’t go unnoticed – Riley and Hillman were named to the All-Tournament team. Hillman also earned the tournament’s MVP award.

“It was well deserved,” Cox said. “(Hillman’s) ability to get the ball out when it’s under pressure is exceptional. She did a really nice job distributing the ball. Collectively the entire team has picked up on defense.”

One of the most pivotal moments of the tournament actually came in the first game on Friday against fifth-seeded Iowa (3-3 Big Ten, 10-7 overall), which Michigan won, 3-2. With only two minutes left in the first half, and Iowa up 1-0, Dallas scored a tip-in goal off a corner to tie the game. If she had not tied the game at that juncture, Michigan would have had a much tougher road to victory.

“It was critically important for the team to go into halftime not being down 1-0 on an opposing team’s field,” Cox said.

The momentum swung decisively in Michigan’s favor after Dallas’s goal. Belassi and junior defender Kara Lentz both scored in the second half, while Iowa managed only one more goal on a controversial penalty stroke call.

Saturday’s semifinal game may have been Michigan’s biggest challenge – playing against the Big Ten regular-season champion Penn State (6-0 Big Ten, 17-3 overall).

Michigan proceeded to dominate the Big Ten’s best, beating them 2-1. Both Michigan goals came off penalty corners. The game was not even as close as the score would indicate – Penn State did not score until the 68th minute of play.

“Our gameplan was to effectively manage their midfield,” Cox said. “That was the difference in the game. I think our forwards and midfielders did a good job containing the ball to the outside.”

Cox believes that Penn State’s bye through the first round of play actually gave the Wolverines an advantage.

“Our kids had the opportunities to play a match and get the jitters out,” Cox said.

Riley played one of the finest games of her already-outstanding Michigan career, according to Cox, stopping all shots but the final one.

Now the team is looking forward to the first and second rounds of NCAA Tournament next weekend.

Game times, pairings and locations for the playoffs will be announced on Tuesday at 7:30 p.m.

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