HOFFMAN ESTATES, Ill. -- In the end, like so many things, the Big Ten Tournament is a matter of perspective. It was either a fitting end to one of the most curious seasons in memory, or it was the one occurrence that should have been predictable.
One of the few things definitely true during the league season was that Penn State and Nebraska were the two best teams. In keeping with the unpredictable season, though, neither made it to the championship game of the tournament. Instead, third-seeded Purdue defeated fourth-seeded Michigan State 62-47. It was the Boilermakers second championship in a row and ninth victory in 19 tries.
But even after a season of upsets, the four top seeds advanced to the semifinals. First Purdue, which played with remarkable offensive consistently throughout the tournament, dominated Nebraska 77-64 in a game that was not as close as the score would indicate. Purdue, led by Sam Ostarello’s 18 points and nine rebounds, used an 11-0 run late in the first half to take a 42-31 halftime lead and Nebraska was never able to get closer than ten points in the second half. Purdue had four players in double figures and only turned the ball over 10 times in the game. As is normally the case, Nebraska was led by Lindsey Moore, 22 points, and Jordan Hooper with 15, but the Cornhuskers never found a third scorer as no one else finished with more than six. In addition, Nebraska, which relies heavily on the three-point shot, was only 6-21 from long range.
Then, in the tournament’s real shocker, Michigan State used smothering defense to defeat top-seeded and ninth-ranked Penn State 54-46. As a team, Penn State shot only 22.4% for the game and while league Player of the Year Maggie Lucas put up 23 points, she was only 7-22 from the field. Jasmine Thomas, the Spartans’ top player in the tournament, led them with 19 points.
The championship itself was never really a game. The Boilermakers came out white hot from the field, hit their first eight shots and four free throws, and were limited only by early turnovers. When they missed their first shot, almost ten minutes into the game, Purdue led 20-8 and Michigan State never really got back into it. In fact, the Boilers continued to pour it on and led 33-14 at half. In one 14-minute stretch in the first half, Michigan State made only one basket in 20 tries.
In the second half, Michigan State had one run that brought the Spartans to within nine points with six minutes to play, but two threes by Courtney Moses proved to be the final dagger for Purdue.
Purdue was led by tournament Most Outstanding Player Drey Mingo, who hit 10 of her 11 shots on the way to a 24-point, eight-rebound performance. Courtney Moses, who came out of her shooting slump at the most opportune time, added 16 points and five assists. Thomas again led Michigan State with 15 points and seven rebounds, but her teammates only hit 13 of 44 shots and gave her little help.
After the game, Michigan State coach Suzy Merchant termed her team’s effort “flat” and said, “We were not very sharp. We talked about being actionary versus reactionary, and I think it was completely the opposite. We just kind of took whatever they did.”
For Purdue, the championship was a perfect way for the Big Ten career of Mingo to end. In 2010, she nearly died from meningitis and she missed the 2011 season with an ACL tear. Purdue coach Sharon Versyp, who spoke as usual about her team’s heart and will to win, said of Mingo, “She’s a walking miracle. She’s an inspiration. I’m just so happy that things worked out the way they did for her and our team.”
The win gives Purdue a 37-10 overall and 9-4 championship game record in the Big Ten tournament, or the Purdue Invitational, as it is also sometimes called. It also removed a major point Purdue critics often make: In all but one past tournament, Purdue has essentially has had the home court advantage with the tournament being played in Indianapolis. This year, for the first time the tournament was moved to Chicago, which took away any perceived advantage the Boilers had.
Purdue head coach Sharon Versyp cuts down the nets after her team claimed the Big Ten Championship. (Photo by Tom Campbell)
Purdue won the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, although Michigan State will undoubtedly join the league champs. Entering the tournament, there were few questions surrounding the Big Ten and the NCAA tournament and those few were answered. Iowa, which had probably clinched a bid before the tournament started, removed any doubt with its first-round victory over Northwestern. Illinois needed a win to put itself in position to gain a berth and didn’t get it. Eleventh-seeded Wisconsin, which had exactly the same number of starters in street clothes, three, as reserves available, gutted out a win over Illinois in the first round. That loss almost certainly guaranteed that the Illini will be playing in the WNIT rather than the NCAA tournament.
Finally, Ohio State came in with outside chances of gaining a bid but the second round loss to Penn State ended those hopes. The loss did raise an interesting question though. Ohio State is hosting the first and second rounds of the NCAA tournament so their arena will not be available. It will be most interesting to see if coach Jim Foster ends his most disappointing season at Ohio State by accepting an WNIT berth, when it is certain that they will have to travel in early rounds.
As usual, the all-tournament team was dominated by the winners. In addition to Mingo, KK Houser and Courtney Moses of Purdue were named to the team. They were joined by Michigan State’s Jasmine Thomas, Maggie Lucas of Penn State and Lindsey Moore of Nebraska.
A special mention should go to Wisconsin sophomore Jackie Gulczynski. After averaging 34 minutes a game for the chronically short-handed Badgers, Gulczynski played all 80 minutes of her team’s two games. She hit 13 of 23 shots and grabbed 12 rebounds in a remarkable performance that got lost in the semifinal upsets and Purdue domination.
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