Evanston, Ill - Freshman Sean Conerty's shot from 35 yards on the left side in the 97th minute was the golden goal as Michigan State captured its third Big Ten Tournament title in school history with a 2-1 victory over Michigan on Sunday afternoon in Evanston, Ill. Freshman keeper Zach Bennett made six saves - all in the second half - to backstop the Spartans to their third straight win, earning the Big Ten's automatic bid to the 2012 NCAA Tournament.
Michigan State won the Big Ten Tournament in 2004 and 2008 as well, and in 2008 won both the regular-season title in addition to the post-season title. MSU is the third team to win the tournament as a No. 5 seed, as Ohio State did it in 2000, and MSU pulled it off with their first tournament title in 2004.
"I think that the game was kind of indicative of our whole year," said head coach Damon Rensing. "We had some success, we got down, we weathered the storm . The real credit goes to our players - they really have been so resilient with everything we've been through. This is special."
Conerty's strike came with the wind at the Spartans' backs, which a a consistent 25 mph on the afternoon, played a significant role in how the game played out over the course of the afternoon. MSU had 10 first-half shots compared to three in the second half, when they played into the elements. Michigan had three first-half shots and 10 in the second, which included the equalizing tally with just under three minutes remaining.
"Maybe Domenic Barone is our MVP, since he called the coin toss correctly both pre-game and before overtime," quipped Rensing.
Michigan State held the better of play with the wind at their backs in the first half, outshooting their rivals 10-3 in the first frame, including a 4-0 edge in shots on net. Most of MSU's best chances came as the team gained momentum over the course of the half. Luke Norman's dangerous cross 23 minutes into the half, and he had another grade-A setup with 10:30 showing on the clock. He sent a shot to Adam Montague, but his shot went just wide.
The Spartans finally broke through at 37:43. There was a loose ball at the top of the box, and Fatai Alashe got a foot on it to settle, and Montague stepped up with a right-footed rocket that eluded a diving Adam Grinwis. Minutes later, Tim Kreutz brought it up the right side on a counterattack and fed Montague in the box, but Montague got under it a little and the wind-aided shot sailed high over the crossbar. One last chance for the Spartans came with 1:37 remaining in the half, as a Barone shot from the left side of the top of the box was punched away by Grinwis.
In the second half, Michigan had the wind at its back, and generated an increasing number of chances as the time ticked down in regulation. In the 58th minute, Bennett was able to smother a shot by Brian Klemczak, then 10 minutes later he punched a shot by Ezekiel Harris wide. Bennett recorded seven saves in the second half, including four in the final 10 minutes of play when the Wolverines threw their men up front in seek of an equalizer.
That tying goal for the Wolverines finally came with 2:42 remaining in regulation. After Bennett came up with big saves on leading scorer Tyler Arnone (82nd minute) and Kofi Opare on a header attempt in the 85th minute, Roehn was able to flick the ball over Bennett and the slow roller found its intended target. It was Roehn's fourth goal of the season, and a big one to keep Michigan's season alive.
With 2:06 showing on the clock, the Wolverines got a dangerous restart after Ryan Keener was given a yellow card. Fabio Periera took the shot, which Bennett covered in the area. With 90 seconds remaining, he had to dive to his right to stop an Arnone shot.
The Spartans got the wind in the overtime period, which had been a considerable asset for both teams as they pushed that way on offense on the afternoon. Barone got the first shot in the OT period, just three minutes into the extra frame. He came up the right side, but an aggressive Grinwis punched it out of harm's way and play continued. The Spartans continued their pressure in the offensive third, and it paid off with the Conerty service that won it for the Spartans late in the first overtime period.
The Spartans will learn their fate in the NCAA Tournament field during the selection show on Monday at 5:30 p.m.