EAST LANSING – Fresh off an appearance in Sports Illustrated’s Faces in the Crowd, it would have been understandable if senior Lucia Belassi fell victim to the dreaded SI jinx.
But, by scoring the game-winning goal in overtime of No. 6 Michigan’s 2-1 win over No. 7 Michigan State, Belassi not only proved the superstition wrong – she also might have secured the Wolverines a Big Ten regular-season title in process.
After Michigan was awarded a penalty corner four minutes into the extra period, junior Michaela McDermott fed Belassi at the top of the shooting circle. The senior then unleashed a shot, which deflected off a Michigan State defender and past Spartan goalie Elissa Unger.
“Thank God (the jinx) didn’t happen today,” said Michigan coach Nancy Cox after the game. “It’s a very hard task having the ball on your stick in an overtime period and being able to put it away.”
The win puts Michigan in control of its own destiny as it concerns the Big Ten regular-season crown. Michigan is the lone Big Ten team with an unblemished conference record.
And with games remaining against conference doormats Northwestern and Indiana, it appears a title is within the team’s grasp.
“This was like the game for us to win, especially for the Big Ten regular season,” Belassi said.
It didn’t come easy, though.
In what has become a normal occurrence this season, Michigan fell behind early and let the Spartans dictate play in the first half. The Wolverines have come from behind in four of their past five wins.
After thwarting several shots, Wolverine goalie Paige Pickett was beaten top shelf by Spartan forward Michelle Ciliberti, giving Michigan State a 1-0 lead 26 minutes into the game. The Spartans outshot Michigan 14-4 in the first half alone.
Cox said following the game the poor play had a lot to do with the effective pressure put on by the Spartans.
Michigan had trouble clearing the ball out of its own end of the field. But freshman Vanessa Sekhon swung momentum in the Wolverines’ favor, scoring off a penalty corner when no time remained in the first half. In field hockey, since a running clock is used, a half cannot end if a penalty corner is awarded to a team.
“We deflated them right before they went to their 10-minute halftime talk,” Cox said. “How do you respond to that?”
The second half turned into the physical battle everybody has come to expect in the Michigan-Michigan State field hockey rivalry. Neither team could control play for a significant amount of time, with scoring chances hard to come by. Both teams notched just three shots in the frame.
The Wolverines took just one shot in overtime, but they made it count. It was their seventh-consecutive victory and eighth by a margin of one goal. During the winning streak, Michigan has defeated four ranked opponents, with three victories coming in the extra frame.
“In overtime, when our team was sitting on the bench, there was just an air of confidence that was pervasive in that five-minute break between periods,” Cox said. “It was like, ‘We’ve been here, and we know what it feels like.’ “
And with the NCAA Tournament just a month away, Michigan must feel good about its chances, riding the program’s longest winning streak since 2004.
But don’t say anything yet. You wouldn’t want to jinx it.