MU had the opportunity to lock up their spot a week and a half ago when they hosted Denver at Valley Fields, but the Golden Eagles committed way too many turnovers in the first half and let the Pioneers hang around and eventually pull away at the end. That was the second of three straight losses for the Golden Eagles since starting out league play 5-0, and last week’s overtime heartbreaker to Georgetown was the third in a row.
They weren’t surprising losses, by the way. Florida, Denver, and Georgetown were the three best teams in the Big East coming into the season, and it’s not that big of a deal for MU to take a loss to all three, especially with two coming on the road. Marquette was competitive in two of them (breaking news: the Gators remain ridiculous), and since this was a season where MU was trying to qualify for the four-team conference tournament for the first time ever, that’s fine.
Unfortunately, it leaves Marquette with a win-or-go-home scenario on Saturday. Win, and MU will be either the three or the four seed in the Big East tourney, depending on other results around the league. Lose, and the season is over. As if the stakes weren’t high enough, Connecticut, the team on the other side of the field, finds themselves in the exact same position as the Golden Eagles. A win by the Huskies will create a tie with Marquette at 5-4 in the standings, and UConn will come away with the advantage due to the head-to-head win.
That’s not the only drama for Saturday afternoon in the Valley Dome. Grace Gabriel is sitting on 52 goals on the season after going through a bit of a dry spell lately. It turns out that the best teams in the conference are very good at shutting down a team’s best scorer! Who knew! Anyway, Gabriel’s 52 is just three goals short of Julianna Shearer’s single season record of 55, set just last year. Gabriel will need four goals in this game to break the record in a loss, or hope that Marquette prolongs the season by one more game in order to take over the #1 spot thanks to the Big East semifinals. Gabriel’s pursuit of Shearer’s career record is a lot less dramatic. She’s just three goals away from Shearer’s 115, but Gabriel is finishing up her junior season right now. There’s a whole extra season to rack up that record, so breaking it on Saturday will merely be a bonus to setting the single season mark.
Big East Game #9: vs Connecticut Huskies (8-8, 4-4)
Marquette is 0-5 all time against Connecticut. The two teams have met in April of every season in MU history so far, and the Golden Eagles have been knocking on the door of their first win in the series over the past four years. They fell by just one in Storrs in 2014, then by two at Valley Fields in 2016, and last year’s contest out east was decided by just three goals after MU made a ferocious comeback in the final 15 minutes.
Ready for a hacky joke? Here goes: Saturday’s game will be decided by which team has the most grace. Marquette will need a big day from leading scorer Grace Gabriel, and Connecticut will need the same from Grace Nolan. UConn’s best attacker leads the Big East in goals per game at 4.19 this season, and she recently set a Big East record for most league game goals in a career. Nolan’s not just limited to putting in the net, although her 67 goals are really impressive. She’s also tallying nearly two assists per game, which is good enough for fourth best in the Big East. Think of it this way: What if Grace Gabriel also passed like Riley Hill? That’s Grace Nolan.
UConn has other scorers to keep an eye on. Kelsey Catalano and Caitlin Leary are both averaging over two goals per game, but they’re mostly shooters with only 11 assists between them. Given her abilities, MU’s best plan might be to face guard Nolan for the entire game and attempt to just keep her from having possession all together. If MU can force the Huskies to distribute from somewhere that’s not Nolan, that could disrupt UConn’s overall plan.
Continuing the theme of “most grace wins,” Grace Beshlian will get the netminding duties for Connecticut. Marquette may have the advantage in the goaltending department, as Beshlian is stopping just 36% of shots on goal this season. Nearly 48% of all opponent shots are going in against UConn this season, so if MU can focus on accuracy, they should be able to find holes around Beshlian. Her 13.08 goals against average is nothing to write home about, but that seems to be more of a function of UConn’s team defense than anything else.