WCHA Final Faceoff: Gophers women fall short against top-ranked Wisconsin

Minnesota hoped to take their NCAA tournament fate out of the selection committee’s hands by winning the WCHA Final Faceoff. They’ll have to settle for feeling good about their effort.

The Gophers held top-seeded and top-ranked Wisconsin to 23 shots on goal but five of them found the back of the net in a 5-3 loss in Saturday’s first semifinal at Ridder Arena.

Abbey Murphy, Amy Potomak and Grace Zumwinkle scored goals for Minnesota (11-8-1), which was hoping to earn the WCHA’s automatic NCAA tournament berth to guarantee its 13th consecutive berth in the eight-team national championship bracket.

Makenna Webster scored twice, and goaltender Kennedi Blair stopped 21 shots for the Badgers (13-3-1), who advanced to Sunday’s 2 p.m. championship game against Ohio State, which beat Minnesota Duluth, 7-2, in the other semifinal.

Now, the Gophers will have to wait until Sunday evening to see if they earn one of four at-large bids — a difficult equation to solve considering all four Faceoff teams are ranked in the top five of both major polls and only one of them will earn an automatic bid.

The field will be announced Sunday at 8 p.m.

“The message to the team was pretty simple,” Gophers coach Brad Frost said. “That we don’t know what it’s going to look like tomorrow, so I told them to prepare like we’re going to see each other again and practice on Monday, and that’s certainly the hope.”

The Gophers have been to the NCAA tournament every season since 2006-07 (it was canceled by the pandemic last spring) advancing to the title game six times and winning it all four times. Their record isn’t sparking, but the Gophers have a case to make.

Because of COVID-19 pauses and postponements throughout the WCHA, they played 13 of their 20 games against teams that finished the regular season ranked in the Top 5 of both major polls, going 0-4-1 against the Badgers this season, 2-4 against No. 3 Ohio State (12-5-0) and 2-0 against No. 5 UMD (11-6-0).

That’s something no team outside the WCHA can claim because there was no interconference play this season.

“We did what we could; the next 24 hours are really out of our control,” said senior blue liner Emily Brown, who had two assists on Saturday. “As far as tonight, I’ll probably do home work to take my mind off things and wait to see what our future holds. It’s out of our control; I’ll try not to think about it too much until tomorrow comes around.”

The Badgers opened the scoring on a goal by Sophie Shirley, who scooped in a pass from teammate Britta Curl at 12:08 of the first period, and never trailed.

“They came out really hard on us, and that’s what we wanted to do, push right and not give them any time or room.” Shirley said. “We thought if we could throw any pucks on goal that would be a good thing, and that’s how that goal happened.”

Webster put the Badgers up 2-0 at 7:12 of the second period to give them control they never relinquished. Three times the Gophers pulled within a goal, and each time the Badgers answered with one of their own.

Murphy cut the lead to 2-1, but Webster scored her second goal of the game on a power play when her shot deflected off a defender’s stick and surprised sophomore goalie Makayla Pahl in the top of her left corner for a 3-1 lead.

Senior Lauren Bench replaced Pahl for the third period and made some big early saves before Potomak cut the deficit to 3-2 when she swept in the rebound off a shot by Josey Dunne 1:35 into the third period. But Bench got caught behind her net four minutes later and Lacey Eden darted through the slot to pot a deflection to make it 4-2.

Zumwinkle cut the Badgers’ lead to 4-3 on a rush with 4:31 left in regulation, but the Gophers were never able to pull Bench for an extra attacker. Olivia Knowles, who earlier stopped a two-on-one with a body block, was called for tripping with 33.7 seconds remaining, and Curl scored unassisted with 14 seconds left to ice the victory.

Now the Gophers must wait and hope the top-ranked teams in other conferences win their tournaments, and that their resume is enough to make in 13 straight NCAA tournament appearances.

“It’s been challenging this year without any nonconference opponents; it makes every contest so vitally important,” Badgers coach Mark Johnson said. “It’s been a goofy year, but I know one thing: we have four teams at this tournament who had good seasons and deserve to move on.”

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