The tournament magic stopped just short of a trophy.
In the highest-scoring championship game in Big Ten Tournament history, No. 4 seed Northwestern (36-17) fell to No. 2 seed Minnesota (39-15) 9-6 on Sunday in Madison, Wisconsin. The Golden Gophers captured their third straight championship win, denying the Wildcats their first tournament title since 2008. Northwestern had a series of memorable Saturday victories on their way to the final, pulling off an extra-inning walk-off versus No. 12 Iowa and pitching a no-hitter against No. 8 Michigan State.
Minnesota started off the game dominant, scoring four runs in the first-inning and forcing Morgan Newport to pitch relief for Kenna Wilkey after facing five batters. The Gophers made it 6-0 in the second before the Wildcats finally picked things up on offense. Wilkey hit a 2-RBI double to bring home Abbey Boyd and Marissa Panko, and Newport’s sacrifice fly gave Wilkey the third run for the team.
A third-inning two-run homer extended Minnesota’s lead to 8-3, while the ’Cats were forced to strand runners on second- and third-base in the lower half of the frame. Multiple Northwestern pitching changes occurred in the fourth after Newport and Nicole Bond combined to throw three-straight walks. Wilkey would return to the game and managed to allow only one run (off a wild pitch) after facing bases-loaded with no outs.
Though Northwestern managed to score a run each in the fifth- and sixth-innings, they would end up leaving two runners on base in both frames (this was a theme during the game: Northwestern and Minnesota would each strand eight runners). In the bottom of the seventh, with the Gophers leading 9-5 with one out, Wilkey hit a groundout that forced her out at first base but scored Sammy Nettling. Brooke Marquez then hit a double with two outs to keep the ’Cats alive. Marquez took third base after a wild pitch, and Newport looked to bring in another RBI. But with a 1-2 count, she swung at a dropped third strike and was thrown out at first to end the game.
For the third-straight year, the Wildcats were eliminated in the tournament by the eventual champion Minnesota. It was Northwestern’s first championship game played since they won in 2008 versus Iowa. The Gophers achieved an automatic bid to play in the NCAA regionals, while Northwestern will wait to see if they qualify for further postseason play. The selection show takes place at 9 p.m. Sunday night and can be watched on ESPN2.
Edit: Northwestern has qualified for the 2018 NCAA Tournament. They are in the Athens regional and will face the University of California, Berkeley on May 18 at 12 pm.