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Lions Inch Past Albany, Fall to Syracuse in NCAA Tournament

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By Jackson Thibodeau, Student Staff Writer
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - On the same weekend that the Penn State field hockey team set out on their NCAA Tournament journey, that journey came to an abrupt halt at the hands of a swarming Syracuse defense.

8303524.jpegThe Big Ten regular season and tournament champion Nittany Lions opened the weekend with a hard-fought first round victory over Albany on Saturday, but eventually fell to Syracuse on Sunday afternoon in University Park by a score of 5-2.

On Saturday, it was a valiant effort from Penn State senior goalkeeper Ayla Halus that helped guide the Nittany Lions past Albany into Sunday's quarterfinal matchup.

"Ayla was phenomenal," said head coach Charlene Morett following Saturday's 2-1 victory over the Great Danes. "Ayla was the MVP. With those saves at the end, I thought that she was just outstanding."

Halus' phenomenal second half consisted of two clutch saves in the final five minutes of play, which effectively held the Nittany Lions lead to one goal until time expired.

While Halus' play was instrumental in holding off the Albany attack, it was sophomore Taylor Herold that put the only two goals up on the board for the Nittany Lions.

Herold found the cage for the first time midway through the opening half and then again with just 10 minutes remaining in the contest.

"We play defense together and we play offense together," said Halus. "That's how we score our goals--we move the ball as a team."

The game consisted of numerous penalties that were issued to both teams, and while it was emotionally taxing, Morett insisted that her team would have the stamina to face their opponent in the quarterfinal less than 24 hours later.

After the narrow victory over Albany, the team grabbed a quick meal and swiftly returned to the Penn State Field Hockey Complex to watch the matchup between Syracuse and Massachusetts.

The fifth-ranked Orange earned a 4-2 win over the Minutemen, and at this moment, the focus of the Nittany Lions shifted from an examination of their first-round victory to their pending quarterfinal showdown with Syracuse.

Enter Sunday.

The Nittany Lions walked onto their home turf on Sunday afternoon to sunny 60-degree weather and stands filled with fans in blue and white.

"Our crowd is awesome--they are great people," said Halus. "
It's Penn State. We are one team. I looked over during a timeout and saw so many other teams out here supporting us--we will do the same thing for them too."

Fans, players and coaches alike knew what was at stake prior to the start of Sunday's showdown between top-five teams.

For Penn State--it was a berth in the NCAA Semifinals for the first time since 2007 and the continuation of their quest for a national championship.

The first half of play against the Orange was strikingly similar to Penn State's efforts against Albany just one day before. The Nittany Lions battled to maintain possession of the ball and offensive opportunities were few and far between.

Syracuse, backed by a smothering defense and impressive goaltending, entered halftime with a 2-0 lead over Penn State.

The Nittany Lions had relied heavily on goal scoring chances from penalty corners all season long, but the Orange held the hosts to just four penalty corners in the opening half.

After the break, it didn't take long for Penn State to force more opportunities in the offensive zone via their bread and butter--penalty corners.

The second half consisted of 11 total penalty corners for the Nittany Lions, nine of which came in a 15-minute span that was characterized by a Penn State dominance of possession.

Each attempt warranted sighs and gasps from the crowd.

Time-after-time junior Whitney Reddig would inbound the ball; a teammate would fire a shot towards the cage; and as if it was scripted--a Syracuse defender or goaltender would deny the scoring opportunity.

The ninth attempt was the charm for Penn State.

The sense of urgency was evident, and just over 15 minutes into the second half, Reddig redirected a pass from teammate Hannah Allison out of midair and into the goal to bring the score to 2-1 in favor of the Orange.

Following the goal, Syracuse responded with a fury of scores and control over possession, holding Penn State to just a single shot on goal in over 10 minutes of play.

"It was tough to get [the score] to 2-1," said Morett. "Then all of the sudden it was 3-1, then 4-1...We had some opportunities at the beginning of the game, and you have to score on those."

Penn State found the back of the cage again in the contest by way of another Reddig goal, but a three-goal deficit was simply too large with only a handful of minutes left to play.

As the clock dwindled down to zero, fans gave the Nittany Lions and the National Semifinal-bound Orange a standing applause, and four Penn State seniors walked off the field for the final time of their collegiate careers.

"For the seniors--I want to thank them for all of their years and the effort they gave," said Morett.

Penn State finished the season as outright Big Ten regular season and tournament champions with an 18-4 overall record...but for Morett and the entire squad, the 2012 campaign would have had a sweeter ending if it had been in Norfolk, Va.--the site of the NCAA Semifinals.

"They are fighters," said associate athletic director Charmelle Green after Sunday's loss.

"I know this loss hurts tremendously. But I know that they will be back at it working hard and getting ready for next season because that's what this program does. That's what Penn State does."

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