To some extent, UB's Women's Soccer team was a victim of geography tonight. In an NCAA field in which first-round matchups are drawn primarily by geography, RPI #6 Penn State was the closest school in the field to Buffalo, and Buffalo the second-closest to State College.
Given that Lasalle and Rutgers are so close and Rutgers had no other clear pairing, UB was likely headed into Pennsylvania regardless of whether the Nittany Lions had won the Big Ten Tournament to earn a top seed or fallen in the first round and to a #2 seed, as they did.
In any sport, you're always nervous about a MAC Champion going up against a power-conference foe, and it was apparent quickly tonight that the Nittany Lions had UB beat in most measurables: they were bigger, faster, and more precise by large degrees. When UB held the ball in the first minute, Penn State was marking every single Bull more tightly than most MAC teams had been able to shadow even half the team.
The Nittany Lions boast, among other award-winners, the Big Ten Midfielder of the Year, and were able to give UB a dose of their own ball control medicine, putting a low shot just wide 40 seconds in and forcing freshman goalkeeper Laura Dougall to handle the ball a half dozen times in the first few minutes.
The Bulls desperately needed to calm down and play their game, but were unable to get much possession, let alone pressure, before Raquel Rodriguez was able to break through three Bulls in the box and cross over to Mallory Weber for the opening goal at 15'. Short of a single free kick earned by Megan Giesen just moments earlier, UB trailed without ever getting the ball across midfield.
The rest of the half was slightly calmer, and UB held the Nittany Lions at 1, but the Buffalo successes in the cold - it was 29 Fahrenheit at start time - can really only be measured in two shots on goal. The hosts were simply faster moving, faster passing, and faster thinking than the Bulls, who seemed a bit out of sorts even beyond the quality of the opposition. UB slowly found some chances, but was unable to really threaten as Penn State jumped on every loose ball, closed every sliver of space, and was unbelievably precise with not just regular passes, but sliding breakups and clearances that normally rattle around a bit before a team gains control.
Buffalo had fought in the first half into the wind, which held up anything in the air and helped Penn State win nearly every loose ball, and despite the Nittany Lions' overwhelming physical advantage, a 1-0 deficit going into the half before Coach Burke's excellent adjustments was something to look forward to, at least. But PSU earned a corner in the final minute and the resulting play was far worse for Blue and White hopes than ceding a second goal.
As the corner flew long and was cleared in the final seconds, MAC Defensive Player of the Year Jackie Hall lay unmoving on the grass, face-down in the box. She would stay down for a few minutes, though she sat and eventually stood up before being helped off the field. Looking through the pictures on various UB cameras, it looked like she got knocked in the back of the head by a Penn Stater going for the ball.
Hall was not among the eleven Bulls out for warmups before the second half. Given how much of the ball Penn State had enjoyed in the first 45, it was not a good omen. Fellow MAC First-Teamer Courtney Mann moved back to Hall's centreback spot next to Sophie Therien, and Andrea Niper filled in for Mann in the midfield.
It didn't take long for Penn State to capitalize. Laura Dougall was forced to make three saves in the first three minutes, before PSU doubled their lead off a corner. Seconds later an absolutely beautiful long ball into the win forced Dougall off her line, and Megan Schafer was able to deftly tap it around Dougall and roll it into the net. A not-overwhelming 1-0 deficit at half was 3-0 far too quickly.
Buffalo's best soccer came in the next twenty minutes or so, but it's all relative: Penn State was very, very good, very, very fast, and very, very precise. At one point a shot on net rolled along the end line to Dougall's left, and even though Angel Hart had an eight- or nine-yard lead on everyone, Penn State maintained possession after easily outrunning the UB left back. Even after 60 minutes of the game, I was still stunned by how quickly Hart's advantage disappeared.
Still, Buffalo got some chances going from the usual suspects: Celina Carrero, Kassidy Kidd, and Katie Roberts were at times able to find space from the outside while Sophie Therien and Kristin Markiewicz played an excellent full ninety on the back line. In the 75th minute substitute Dana Lytle cleared a dangerous Penn State chance after the Nittany Lions found the crossbar. From that, Buffalo built to possession inside the box, and when a Bull fell down with the ball at her feet, UB was awarded a penalty.
Katie Roberts stepped up and calmly put the shot away, giving UB its first-ever goal in the NCAA Tournament and all of us a reason to celebrate in the cold. Less that two minutes later Kassidy Kidd was able to get space and a path into the box and blasted a high shot that Penn State's reserve goalie just barely got her hands on. The ensuing corner saw UB once again gain possession in the box, but they couldn't get a shot off.
Penn State would score once more for good measure and finish off the Bulls 4-1; a large margin of victory that I truthfully wasn't expecting. You have to wonder what could have been with Jackie Hall healthy for a full 90, but the only concern there should be her longer-term health.
With the loss, UB's season comes to end, but it's important to remember that this morning there were 64 teams still playing soccer this year, and 63 of them will finish the season with a loss. As I said on Twitter, it's part of the deal.
Other important things to remember: This team did many, many things that no UB squad before them had done, they won just the fourth MAC Championship - in any sport - in school history, and while waiting for the awards presentation after winning that championship at UB Stadium they sang as a family the Bill Withers classic 'Lean On Me' to themselves just as much as to a crowd growing steadily silent to listen in.
Sometime in the later half of next week I will recap the season and look ahead to next year, but not now. Right now is for appreciating where this team is right now: the fact that in the first place just to get to this disappointment we won the freaking MAC and were in the freaking NCAA tournament.
It really has been an incredible season, and I hope everyone reading this, no matter their connection to the team, remembers and appreciates that for all it's worth.