STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Bend but don't break is one way to survive in the postseason. Michigan went with bend and break against Portland.
The Wolverines bent early and often against an opponent that built a championship legacy on the strength of possession and passing. But Wolverines junior forward Nkem Ezurike broke the Pilots on this night.
Behind a goal and two assists from Ezurike, Michigan upset No. 4 seed Portland 3-0 in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Five seasons after former United States women's national team coach Greg Ryan took over a program in some degree of shambles, and one week after a miraculous first-round escape of its own, Michigan finds itself in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2003.
"This was a great soccer team that plays great possession soccer against a team that was committed to defend and do whatever it takes to get a goal," Ryan said of Portland and his team, respectively.
Michigan advanced despite registering a season-low eight shots. Portland dominated possession throughout much of the game, pinging passes around Michigan's 18-yard box. The catch was Michigan put itself in position to absorb all that possession. The Wolverines needed until the 90th minute to get on the scoreboard for the first time last week against Central Michigan in the first half, eventually winning on an Ezurike goal in overtime. It took fewer than four minutes on this night for Ezurike to shrug off a defender near the end line, turn and thread a pass between two opponents to Clare Stachel five yards out.
Unable to find the equalizer amidst all its ensuing possession, Portland then watched a close-range chip from Michigan's Emily Jaffe, the ball delivered to her by Ezurike, hit off the Portland keeper's hands and settle in the net for a 2-0 lead just 39 seconds from the halftime whistle. Without scoring a goal, and without seeing all that much of the ball, Ezurike dominated the proceedings.
"They do a great job of trying to isolate her and make you get isolated against her," Portland coach Garrett Smith said. "And we didn't do a very good job, especially in the first half, dealing with her. I thought we did a much better job in the second half. We're going to just rely on our ball possession hopefully to keep the ball away from her. And again, trying to break down that many numbers, being two goals down, let them pack it in against us a little bit. That was tough, and it played more to their strengths at that point."
On the final goal, Ezurike took the ball just inside the midfield line and held off two defenders as she dribbled all the way into the 18-yard box and beat the keeper with a low, accurate shot. The definition of a counterattack, it didn't break Portland's spirit but it effectively ended its hopes.
Despite missing the first four games of the college season while playing for Canada in the FIFA Under-20 World Cup in Japan, Ezurike leads Michigan with 15 goals in 19 games this season, including at least one goal in each of the past seven games. In three seasons, she has already scored 35 goals. In the three seasons that preceded her arrival, the entire Michigan team managed just 54 goals.
"I can remember when Nkem first came in and right from the get-go was just this force up top," Stachel said. "I think she's a very rare player, in terms of you can give her almost any ball and she can bring it down and do something with it. A lot of players have trouble doing that, but even when she has two players around her, other teams can't seem to stop her. To me, that's really unique and special."
It's an easy comparison to make given that Ryan coached both players, but the 5-foot-11 Ezurike has the same effect on a college game that United States star Abby Wambach does in the international game. And it's not a comparison her coach shrinks from making.
"I've played against both of them because I train on the field with them," Ryan said. "I was an ex-defender, and I don't know who is stronger. They're two of the strongest women I've ever been up against. I think Nkem on the ground is so technical. She can hold the ball up against anybody. And Abby's real strength -- she's good on the ground, and she's a smart player, but her real strength as a player is in the air. There's nobody in the world that can score goals like Abby Wambach in the women's game. But yeah, I mean, Nkem is faster, she's better one-on-one. Her ability to see the field is very similar to Abby's -- hold it, see and connect with your teammates."
And maybe, against the school that won two college championships with current Canadian international star Christine Sinclair, fans saw a player who could be in the spotlight for years to come.
"If Canada will invest in her and bring her into camp after camp, she can be their Abby Wambach," Ryan said.
For now, international glory can wait. What comes next is much more local, a rematch against conference rival Penn State on Sunday. The Nittany Lions dominated the Big Ten this season and are one of four No. 1 seeds for a reason. But when the teams met four weeks ago on the same field, Ezurike's goal was enough for the Wolverines to earn a 1-1 draw. It proved to be Penn State's only conference blemish.
As quick as the first goal came for Michigan against Portland, it wasn't the quickest goal of the night in the stadium. That honor belonged to Penn State's Maya Hayes, who took a pass from Taylor Schram and beat the Boston College keeper for a goal in the first minute of the night's second game. The Nittany Lions proceeded to show why they are arguably the best attacking team in the draw. Hayes scored again in the first half, Boston College unable to deal with her speed most of the night, and freshman Mallory Weber's goal 44 seconds into the second half made it 3-0. But two answering goals from Boston College All-American Kristen Mewis in the span of 2½ minutes made it a one-goal game with 40 minutes to play.
For Penn State, which failed to advance beyond the second round for three consecutive seasons between 2008 and '10 before returning to the Sweet 16 last season, it was an opportunity to panic. Or an opportunity to thrive.
"We know where we've been and we know where we want to go," senior Christine Nairn said. "We don't dwell on the past, but we don't forget it. ... Everybody is working hard, and we know what we wanted to do. And we scored -- a lot."
It was a far more entertaining game than the 5-2 final score suggested, but it wasn't necessarily any closer than that score offered.
Michigan has the more daunting challenge Sunday in trying to repeat its effort of a month ago in keeping Penn State's array of attacking skill from lighting up the scoreboard. But it also has a player who seems at home on this field.
"You don't get in her frame," Walsh said of how to slow Ezurike. "She'll back into you, back into you, and if you get caught up in her, she'll spin you and run you. But you've got to defend her with numbers. I have a ton of respect for her; I think she's one of the top forwards in the country, and she's different than what we're used to seeing. You've just got to keep her as far away from goal as possible."
Do that and a spot in the quarterfinals awaits.