Penn State opened the NCAA Tournament with an emphatic statement against Alabama State.
The Nittany Lions defeated the Hornets 5-0 as the blue and white put the game away early with four first-half goals.
Penn State nearly found itself in the lead after Ally Schlegel smashed a header off the crossbar following a corner and freshman fullback Ellie Wheeler had her shot saved all in the opening five minutes of the game.
The blue and white dominated the opening 15 minutes, having its choice of shots on Alabama State goalkeeper Madison Ropp’s goal.
Frankie Tagliaferri would break the deadlock for the Nittany Lions nearly 20 minutes into the match. Payton Linnehan had a shot deflected right into the path of the All-Big Ten player and led to a tap in for the senior captain.
The match was a one sided affair to begin with, but following the goal, Penn State seemed to open the floodgates.
Tagliaferri managed to complete a first half brace with her 26th minute goal and Payton Linnehan made it 3-0 only two minutes after finding herself in acres of space alone with the goalkeeper.
Thirty minutes into the game, coach Erica Dambach was able to send on a host of substitutes. The Penn State bench was able to contribute to the score line as freshman forward Oliva Damico was able to finish off fellow freshman Elle Kerschner’s low cross along the six-yard box to make it 4-0 before the halftime whistle.
Alabama was held silent in the first half, but to open the second frame the Hornets doubled their shot count with two efforts in the opening minutes of the half.
The Hornets’ initial pressure subsided as Penn State worked its way back into the match. Schlegel, the Big Ten Forward of the Year, nearly found herself a goal before the threat was extinguished by Ropp, who pounced on the effort.
Freshman Natalie Wilson looked as though she could have had two goals in the second half. The freshman sent one of her shots over the goal following a low cross from Linnehan and had a second shot bounce off of the bottom side of the woodwork.
The onslaught of goals increased in the second half when Elle Kershner’s shot from the right side of the box was deflected past Ropp in the Alabama State net for an own goal.
Abello returns to starting lineup
In the games leading up to the NCAA Tournament, it was uncertain whether Abello would be fit to return to the starting lineup at center back.
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The senior captain was able to start in the match against Alabama State, which allowed Cori Dyke to move from her make-shift center back role to her natural defensive midfield position.
Having Abello’s experience and skill at the heart of defense was a massive boast to the blue and white going into the tournament, but Dyke returning to midfield was an even greater bonus for Penn State.
The sophomore midfielder was the blue and white’s anchor. Her defensive presence, combined with her proggressive passing, launched Penn State’s counter attack into a new gear.
Tagliaferri’s second goal the fast break started from Dyke winning the ball in Penn State’s half.
After regaining possession, the midfielder drove down the field with the ball before starting a chain reaction of quick passes that led to beautiful Nittany Lion goal.
Blue and white dominates the break
From the opening, the blue and white was looking to send its forwards in behind the Alabama State defense with long passes.
Penn State picked up several offside calls in pursuit of catching the Hornets’ backline out and eventually the Nittany Lions got things right.
Coffey and Tagliaferri constantly had their heads up, looking to spring teammates into attack. The Nittany Lions attacked with overwhelming conviction as the whole team committed to each attack.
Alabama State frequently looked hapless, attempting to defend the blue and white’s onrush of attackers.
Despite not looking for long spells of possession, Dambach’s counter attacking system dominated the game and allowed Penn State to put up 19 shots to the Hornets’ one in the first half alone.
Penn State was ruthless throughout the game. Bar the opening minutes of the second half, the blue and white never looked like slowing down.
Reserve players make an impact
Penn State’s starters were able to cause enough damage on the scoreline to allow Dambach to make wholesale changes as early as the 30th minute of the match.
Freshmen forwards Damico and Kershner were able to come off the bench and make considerable impacts in their first NCAA Tournament minutes.
Kershner was a like for like change with Linnehan out wide as Kershner powered down the left hand side with her pace, feeding the strikers a number of crosses.
One of those crosses assisted Damico’s 32nd minute goal and Kershner’s shot in the 74th minute ended up bouncing in for an own goal.
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