A four-way tie for first place in the Big Ten among Michigan State, Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan? How much better can it get than this?
Michigans surprising win over a suddenly unsure Ohio State team on Thursday sent all kinds of messages. With that victory in the books early, all Iowa had to do was notch a home win over league leader Michigan State while Penn State beat lowly Illinois in Champaign and suddenly, the top of the Big Ten leaderboard became Grand Central Station. With all the action played elsewhere, Wisconsin had the night off to watch TV and slide into first place alongside the three other teams.
A Quick Look at Thursday's Action
Of course, those wins were not easy. Iowa was taken to the hilt in its 66-64 sweet revenge win over the Spartans as Kachine Alexander scored 23 points and grabbed 11 rebounds to lead her team to victory. Ironically, in the final minute and change, it was a missed trey (two of them, actually) by Michigan State's Kalisha Keane, whose last-second three-pointer had won the game for the Spartans in the two teams' previous encounter just two weeks ago, that led to a wild flurry at the end of the game and ultimately to the Iowa win. Had Keane's trey landed this time around, the Spartans would have headed into the final minute of play up one. Instead, a two-point Hawkeye advantage mushroomed to a five-point edge when Jamie Printy grabbed the board off Keane's miss and Kelly Krei knocked one down from beyond the arc for Iowa at the other end of the court. Keane redeemed herself on MSU's next trip down the court, netting one from downtown with 39 seconds left, but that left Iowa on top by two with 39 seconds left and the Spartans shifted into desperation mode. Iowa turned the rock over with eight seconds left, but Keane missed what might have been the winning three-pointer as time was about to expire and Lykendra Johnson's two put-back attempts were off the mark.
Michigan recovered from a 13-point second-half deficit and hung on for a 69-66 win over the No. 24 Buckeyes. Last in the league in rebounding, the Wolverines began to box Jantel Lavender (10 points) off the boards and inched back into the game. When Michigan took the lead with under a minute to go, the Buckeyes lost their confidence and eventually the game. The Wolverines hit their clutch free throws (Rachel Sheffers two from the line put the Wolverines in the lead and Jenny Ryans two clinched the game) to clinch a surprising win. Michigan Head Coach Kevin Borseth called it an over-the-hump game, and he could have been describing the action throughout the entire Big Ten.
The Nittany Lions' thrilling 67-65 victory over Illinois gave Penn State a piece of the top spot as well. Illinois defends its home floor very well but Penn State just had too much talent Thursday and, quite frankly, entering the game in a tie for second place at 5-2 had much more to lose than the 2-5 Illini. Penn State led in rebounding by 49-29 and a layup by the Lady Lions' Julia Trogele with 9.1 seconds to go provided the final margin.
Lost in all the drama Thursday was Minnesotas first conference victory, a 63-58 win over Northwestern. Katie Loberg scored 21 points, Kiara Buford 18 and freshman Kionna Kellogg ripped down 15 rebounds in only her second career start. Loberg also guarded Wildcat star Amy Jaeschke, holding her reboundless for the first half, and although Jaeschke ended up with 26 points, she got only one of her five rebounds on the offensive boards.
Purdue got off to a slow start but demolished SIU Edwardsburg in a nonconference game. Alex Guyton scored a career-high 16 points to lead Purdue.
Summing up Thursday's results:
Penn State 67, Illinois 65 (01/27/11 at Assembly Hall,)
Iowa 66, Michigan State 64 (1/27/11 at Iowa City, IA -)
Minnesota 63, Northwestern 58 (01/27/11 at Minneapolis, Minn.)
Michigan 69, Ohio State 66 (1/27/11 at Value City Arena -)
Purdue 69, SIU Edwardsville 39 (01/27/11 at Mackey Arena - West)
Source: BigTen.org/Women's Basketball Standings
Coming Up Sunday
This in-state rivalry is significant to Purdue in a huge way. With almost half the season gone, a loss to the Hoosiers would basically make the rest of the season irrelevant for Purdue. There are no easy games in the league this year, as Thursday night showed, but Purdue Head Coach Sharon Versyps team has improved greatly with the re-integration of Drey Mingo and the maturing of freshman guard Courtney Moses will help steady-as-she-goes Brittany Rayburn (13.5 ppg).
Indiana has lost six in a row, including a 50-55 home loss to Purdue three weeks ago. The Hoosiers have begun to rely almost completely on Jori Davis (18 ppg) for offense. The knock against Head Coach Felisha Legette-Jack has been her inability to recruit Big Ten-quality athletes. In a year when other teams have moved forward, the Hoosiers are still losing, and with seniors dominating the statistical columns, there is little hope for improvement in the short term.
Prediction: Purdue should win this. Versyp knows how to shut down a single scorer, and the Boilermakers will be prepared to close down Davis. Boilers by 10+.
This could well be the most interesting game of the day. The Buckeyes are wearing the X on their jerseys this year, and maybe the weight is getting to them. Michigans comeback win in Columbus on Thursday poked a hole in the flimsy veil of confidence that Ohio State was assuming had been mended over the past two weeks.
While the talent level at Ohio State is still unquestionable, Michigan took Lavender out of the game Thursday and made Samantha Prahalis beat them, which she almost (but not quite) did. The Wolverines also used their passing game to force the Buckeyes to work hard on the defensive end. Michigan was able to control the tempo during the last 10 minutes of the game.
The question is: Can the Lady Lions do the same? In the horse race that this match-up should be, can Penn State out-talent Ohio State in a game that the Buckeyes need dearly. Super-sixth-man freshman guard Maggie Lucas now leads her team in scoring at 16.3 points per game, but the Nittany Lions do not rely on her exclusively; they have six players scoring nine-plus points per game. They are out-rebounding conference opponents 335-264 and have the fire in their eyes.
Prediction: Penn State by five.But dont count the Buckeyes out in the Big Ten tournament. They will need it to solidify an NCAA Tournament bid.
Iowas big win over Michigan State needs to be followed up with a win over the Illini or the victory becomes meaningless. At 4-4, the Hawkeyes are a mere two games out of first place but climbing over four other teams will be a daunting task.
Iowa is on the road in this contest, which does not bode well for the Hawkeyes, who are 1-3 on the road in conference play. But then again, Illinois is just 1-3 at home. Lisa Bluders Hawkeye team has lost to Michigan and Penn State, split their series with Michigan State and Ohio State, and beaten Minnesota and Indiana once each. Given that they are 2-2 against what are considered two conference heavyweights, much of the balance of the schedule will be against teams they must defeat to have any chance of winning the conference championship. They have the balanced scoring needed to do it, with five players averaging nine points or better, and they are outscoring opponents, 70-61, while knocking down their shots at a 40-percent clip.
Illinois is working through a year in which they are almost good enough to win big games. But they are not as talented in all five spots as the frontrunners are. Karisma Penn, who averages a double-double of 17.3 points and 10.6 rebounds per game, is a high-quality player, but she doesnt have enough scoring support to give the Illini much of a chance against the better teams.
Prediction: Iowa should win this one, despite its road issues. The Hawkeyes need this game a lot more than Illinois does and there is no really good reason to think that Illinois will win. Iowa by 10.
The Wolverines are on a roll. They have won four straight and for the first time in team history, swept their series against the Buckeyes this year. Michigan is improving daily and their passing and defense was enough to overcome a decided rebounding disadvantage (statistically) against Ohio State.
Minnesota, on the other hand, just got off the mat with its first conference win over a stumbling Northwestern team. Minnesota was never bad enough to go 0-7 and the question is whether or not the Gophers can fan the flickering flame of a hard-earned win over Northwestern with a victory at home over Michigan.
Michigan is a team team. Meaning there are no superstars on the team, just a high-energy, emotional, and talented leader in Veronica Hicks (11.7 ppg) who has as much quickness to the basket as anyone in the conference and enough creativity en route to the hoop to score against the taller defenders. Carmen Reynolds adds 10.9 points per game. Michigan still gives up eight more rebounds per game to its opponents than it hauls off the board each game, but they are second in the league in three-point shooting as well as in field-goal percentages.
Who said you had to be tall to win basketball games, anyway? The Wolverines, in the words of the assistant coach (played by Dennis Hopper) used in the movie Hoosiers to describe an opponent to coach Norman Dale (played by Gene Hackman), are: A bunch of mites; they will run you off the boards.
Led by Jackie Voigt, who averages 6.3 rebounds a game, the Gophers, at least on paper, have rebounding superiority over Michigan. And they are at home. But then again, Minnesota doesnt have much to play for anymore, other than pride and the Big Ten tournament.
Prediction: Hmmmm..Michigan by 10. As we said, they are on a roll.
Is this the game wheN people will quit questioning if Wisconsin is for real or not? The Badgers lead the league after all (albeit alongside three other teams). But wait, six of those wins have been against sixth-place Purdue (twice), bottom-dwelling Minnesota (twice), tenth-place Illinois, and Penn State, the last the only top-ranked opponent of the bunch. Wisconsin has lost to Michigan and Michigan State, two top-ranked teams, with both defeats coming on the road. So make that one quality win against two losses to quality opponents.
The second half of the Badgers' schedule may prove more of a challenge. This is the first of two games against Northwestern and may give some indication of just how strong mentally this Wisconsin team is. The Badgers are last in scoring offense (59 ppg) and third in scoring defense (giving up 57.7 ppg). In contrast, Northwestern is fourth in scoring offense (69.6 ppg) and seventh in scoring defense, allowing opponents 64.7 points per game.
This game has significant implications for postseason play because if selections were made today, both teams would be "on the bubble": Neither team appears to have the ability to win the conference tournament and though Wisconsin is currently in the first-place mix, it has not yet shown it belongs at the top of the heap.
Northwestern has the big star in Jaeschke, who now leads the league in scoring with 23 points per game and is fourth in the league in rebounding at 9.1 boards per game. Three other Wildcats average over 10 points per game -- Brittany Orban (11.4 ppg), Kendall Hackney (11.3 ppg) and Beth Marshall (10.6 ppg) -- on a roster that goes seven or eight deep. The Wildcats should be better than 3-5 in conference play, but then again, that's why games are played on the hardwood, not on paper.
Prediction: This game is a total tossup. I guess Im just not sold on Wisconsin yet. Northwestern by five.