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‘A blink of an eye’: Maher’s winner, Celentano’s heroics send IU to Big Ten Tournament final

Indiana sophomore center back Joey Maher scored the game-winning goal in overtime to help IU defeat Northwestern, 1-0, in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals. (Kate Matthews/HN)

Joey Maher saw it all unfold in front him.

He stood inside Indiana’s own net, acting as IU’s last line of defense, as he watched goalkeeper Roman Celentano swat away not one, not two, not even three Northwestern shots, but four to save the Hoosiers from their own demise.

Two-and-half minutes later, he stood in front of Northwestern’s net, his feet chopping, his eyes up, his brain analyzing the chaos as it happened. Then, the ball suddenly laid at his feet.

One chance to repay Celentano for his Herculean effort.

One shot to send Indiana to the Big Ten Tournament final on Sunday at Penn State.

One golden-goal to forever cement himself in Big Ten Tournament lore.

Maher didn’t think twice. With a swift right-footed touch to settle down an incoming pass, and a second booming, crashing, echoing, reloading swing of his right leg, Maher buried the ball into the back of the net.

In the sophomore center-back’s own words, no explanation is necessary.

“I can’t even explain it, to be honest,” Maher said. “That was all in just such a blink of an eye.”

All of it. From a shaky first half that saw Northwestern’s relentless attack pepper Maher and IU’s backline with dangerous chances, to a momentum-shifting second half that turned the advantage in favor of IU, to Celentano’s overtime heroics, to the eventual golden goal, if you blinked, you missed it.

There wasn’t a sigh of relief to be had for anyone on Wednesday evening at Bill Armstrong Stadium until Maher’s decisive shot in the 97th minute. But when the final whistle sounded, the pandemonium erupted and the Hoosiers swarmed their game-winning savior, a collective exhale was finally released into Bloomington’s cozy autumn air.

Even Indiana head coach Todd Yeagley, even-keeled as he so often is, couldn’t help but throw his hands in the air, whether out of sheer relief or palpable joy.

“Joey’s composure, for a center back to make that play at the end,” Yeagley said, “was really cool. You’ve seen a lot of kids just blast it (the shot), but he picked out where the opening was.”

But the goal likely never happens had it not been for Indiana’s veteran leaders emerging late. After 96 minutes and 15 shots resulting in exactly zero goals for the Hoosiers, the upperclassmen took matters into their own hands.

The winning sequence began as sixth-year captain Spencer Glass sent a crisp pass forward to redshirt junior forward Ryan Wittenbrink inside Northwestern’s 18-yard box. With the end-line leaving little real estate to roam and two Wildcat defenders quickly converging, Wittenbrink had to make a decisive pass.

Maher stood on the receiving end of it, all alone, in front of Northwestern goalkeeper Miha MIskovic, and never fazed. The result: “Just a great, great team goal.”

One of the first teammates Maher sought out following the ensuing chaos was Celentano, clad in an all-baby blue kit that could be seen from the furthest end of Jerry Yeagley Field. After all, without Celentano’s four saves in a 30 second span just minutes earlier, Indiana could’ve easily found itself on the wrong side of defeat.

Sprawling, diving, stretching every last centimeter of his 6-foot-3-inch frame, Celentano turned away the Wildcats at every single crossroads — none bigger than the Herculean-like effort displayed in the 95th minute.

“Roman’s unbelievable,” Maher said. “It’s an honor to be playing with the best goalie in the country. You see it day in and day out.”

For Celentano, it’s business as usual in these types of postseason games. Never in his entire college career has he fell short of a Big Ten Tournament title. Not as a freshman in 2019, not as a sophomore in 2020 and, if Wednesday was any indication, not as a junior in 2021.

“What’s hard is he really didn’t have to do a lot today,” Yeagley said. “That’s where I think he’s grown the most. I think a freshman Roman, I still think he can make that play, but he didn’t try to overplay today.”

It’s true, for 94 minutes and change, Celentano was forced to make just one save — a 23rd-minute shot from Northwestern forward Justin Weiss that never had enough power behind it to truly threaten Celentano.

But then, in an instant, Celentano was thrust into action, and he responded with a save sequence befit of the first ever two-time Big Ten Goalkeeper of the Year.

In the aftermath, all Maher and Celentano could do was smile at each other, embrace and finish off the Wildcats for good.

“These teammates, these guys, they just want what’s best for each other,” Maher said. “It’s an incredible feeling playing here.”

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