INDIANAPOLIS -- The headline could read: "Two Teams to Meet for 2014 Big Ten Championship."
It goes without saying that two teams will meet in any given game, much less a championship. But when Iowa and Nebraska meet in Sunday’s Big Ten tournament Championship, it will be true in every sense of the word. Both the Hawkeyes and the Cornhuskers give much more than lip service to the concept of teamwork and that dedication goes a long way to explaining why they have both advanced. Iowa (26-7) will play Nebraska for the championship Sunday at 1 p.m. EDT. (Don't forget to set your clocks ahead!)
Semifinal 1 (Game 9): No. 5 Iowa 77, No. 8 Ohio State 73
It took every nuance of the word team to get head coach Lisa Bluder’s squad past a feisty Ohio State, 77-73, in the opening game of Saturday’s Big Ten Women’s Basketball Tournament semifinals.
Every Hawkeye starter averages between 12.1 and 14.3 points per game. It is a selfless, almost self-effacing group of players who follow the lead of junior All-Big Ten guard Samantha Logic in their approach to the game.
Logic’s numbers on Saturday's scoresheet were average at best (one point and four fouls, for starters). But her impact was undeniable. She dished out nine assists and drew a couple of key charges and played a key role in the Hawkeye defensive strategy.
“Nine assists and one turnover,” Bluder said about Logic’s performance. “Sam has never been about herself. It is all about, 'I will do whatever it takes for our team to win this game. I don't have to score a point, it doesn't matter.' I mean, some people can say that, she lives it. 'You need a rebound? Fine, I'll rebound. I don't need to score, I don't need my name in the paper, I'll do whatever it takes.' And that's I think her performance out there. She's our floor general, she leads us, she didn't have her shots today so she didn’t force it.”
The real key to the game was how the Hawkeyes were going to defend the quick-footed Ameryst Alston, the sparkplug and drink-stirrer for the head coach Kevin McGuff’s Buckeyes. And, again, Bluder went back to her team concept.
“How do you stop Alston?” Bluder said. “She was hurting us a lot and it was just her drives to the basket were so strong and we started having to switch every single thing. I mean at the beginning of the game we were only going to switch through ball screens and we just had to switch every pitch, every handoff, every single thing and try to keep her in front of us. And that was really the adjustment that we made. I thought that when we went back to the zone, that also mixing it up a little bit was good and trying to keep her out of the paint all day. We shifted our zone personnel around as well. Never done that all year long and did it tonight for the first time. Never practiced it even. Crazy. I know.” It may be crazy but it is also the mark of a well-disciplined, well-coached team.
Throw in an inconsistent officiating team that reversed at least two decisions and spent minutes mulling over two others, and you have the ingredients for an interesting game.
“I don’t think I have seen (two reversals of charging fouls) in one game,” Buckeye sophomore guard Cait Craft said. ”It was a matter of beating each other to the spot. But I don't think I've ever been in a game where it's been overturned like that, no. But the officials are going to do what they're going to do. And I think the officials did a good job of taking their time and figuring out what they were going to call.”
Ohio State, which had the hot hand early against Penn State in Thursday's quarterfinal, found itself at the other end of the gun on Friday. It was Iowa that got off to the hot start, bursting out to an 18-8 lead in the first five minutes of action. But, rather than folding, the Buckeyes fought back and much of that credit belongs to Alston. Alston, who finished with 20 points, called herself a “driver” after Thursday’s win over Penn State, and she took to the lane again Saturday, scoring all of her four first-half field-goals on layups. That forced Iowa to drop defenders off Alston’s teammates, opening up opportunities for them. The net effect: With 5:39 to go in the first half, the Buckeyes had rallied back from a 10-point deficit and knotted the score at 33 all.
But that was short-lived.
Bluder changed her team’s defense, putting Logic on Alston, a move that reduced the Ohio State star's impact, and Iowa began to nose back in front by as many as eight. The Buckeyes' Lisa Blair closed out the half with a layup that sent the two teams into intermission with Iowa up five, 47-42.
The Hawkeyes continued to have trouble keeping up with Alston’s quick first step in the second half. Logic's quick-handed steals and lockdown defense on Alston came at a price: Logic picked up her third foul just five minutes in and had to play more conservatively. Alston capitalized on the situation, running off seven straight points and reducing the Hawkeye lead to 61-57 with about 12 minutes to go.
When Logic picked up her fourth with 9:43 to go and her team ahead 66-57, Bluder pulled her, most likely said a prayer, and then relied on her team.
They came through for her. When Logic reentered the game roughly five minutes later, Iowa still enjoyed a four-point margin, up 73-69, with a little less than four minutes minutes remaining.
The Buckeyes were not yet done, however. Ohio State's Martina Ellerbe launched a three-point shot that missed the mark, but Darryce Moore grabbed the offensive board and laid in the put-back. 73-71. Three minutes to go.
One minute later, it was Moore again, stepping to the free-throw line to nail both, and the score stood tied at 73, with 2:02 still left on the clock.
Both sides stepped up the defensive heat, but offensive rebounding saved the day for the Hawkeyes. (Ohio State finished the game with a modest 34-31 edge of the glass, but Iowa controlled the battle of the offensive boards, 15-12.) One of those offensive rebounds put the ball in the hands of Theirra Taylor who dropped in a layup, the last field goal of the game, to restore Iowa to a two-point edge with a minute-and-a-half left on the clock.
Unable to score, the Buckeyes were forced to foul to stop the clock in the final second. But Iowa's Melissa Dixon iced both penalty shots and with them the 77-73 win and a shot at the Big Ten Tournament championship.
Ohio State finished the year at 17-18. Three of those losses were inflicted by the Hawkeyes.
Semifinal 2 (Game Ten): No. 3 Nebraska 86, No. 2 Michigan State 58
As much as the first of Saturday's semis had been a nailbiter going right down to the wire, the second was a horse race in which only one of the entries seemed to get out of the gate.
Michigan State head coach Suzy Merchant spent most of Saturday evening with a quizzical look on her face as she watched the Nebraska Cornhuskers overwhelm, out-hustle, and outplay her Spartans, 86-58.
For whatever reason, the Spartan team that refused to lose the night before against Michigan let Nebraska run all over them. As a result, neither of the teams that tied for the Big Ten's regular-season championship will lay claim to the league's tournament title. Instead, Cornhusker head coach Connie Yori’s team will have a shot at its first-ever Big Ten title when they take on Iowa Sunday.
It will be Nebraska’s second trip to the final game. They lost a triple-overtime game to Purdue, 74-70 in 2012.
“That was quite possibly the worst game we have ever played,” Merchant said of the Spartans' performance in Saturday's semi. “We did not play well together, we didn’t have any leadership. I don’t even want to look at the stat sheet, it was that bad. But give credit to Nebraska. They punched us in the mouth and we never responded.”
Spartan forward Becca Mills, a junior, said her team was flat. “We were making the effort,” she said. “But we were not making the right decisions. We were not disciplined at all. It was mostly our fault. They were attacking and we just did not respond.”
Yori was really happy with the career high 17-point effort of 6-7 freshman Allie Havers, a recruit from Paw Paw, Michigan, a small town within an hour drive of East Lansing. “Allie is an athlete and she has no lack of confidence,” Yori said. “She has spent a lot of time learning the game. She will be the one staying after practices for 30 minutes taking shot, whether it is with a coach or whomever.”
The game was over, for all purposes midway through the first half when Nebraska went on a 25-4 run that took a one-point deficit (15-14) to a 20-point advantage (39-19). The Huskers played much of that stretch with the team's leading scorer, Jordan Hooper, riding the pines after picking up her second foul just nine minutes into the contest. With her star on the bench, Yori had to depend on the rest of her team, and just as the Hawkeyes had for Bluder, the Cornhuskers obviously came through.
For reasons that were not readily apparent, Yori sent Hooper back into the game with her team already riding a comfortable 20-point lead and just 21 seconds to go before the break. But Hooper promptly rewarded her coach's confidence, nailing a 3-pointer (her only one in six attempts on the night) with three seconds to go to set the halftime score at 50-27. It was all over but the shouting.
At halftime, Nebraska was shooting at a 63.3 percent clip, including a 6-8 effort from beyond the arc. They had also only committed three turnovers. In contrast, MSU was shooting at a 38.7 percent clip (0-4 from 3-point territory) and had 12 turnovers.
In the second half, the Spartans periodically chipped away here and there, but could sustain no serious traction as Nebraska gradually swelled the gap to a max of 32 points.
Tear’a Laudermill slashed her way to 20 points, including three-of-six from the arc, while Rachel Theriot added 18, Allie Havers 17, and Jordan Hooper 15 for Nebraska. “It was good to see the team respond as well as they did when Jordan was on the bench with two fouls,” Yori said. "I thought to myself, this is what next year’s team might look like."
Branndais Agee led MSU with 18 points. Nebraska now stands at 24-6, while Michigan State closed out its Big Ten season at 22-9, 13-3, and is considered a lock for an at-large NCAA Tournament bid.
Championship Game: Sunday, March 9 - 1 p.m. EDT (BTN)
The Nebraska-Iowa championship game should be one that pleases both fans and purists of the game. Bluder and Yori have known each other since they were both players. While it might be considered rude to mention their ages, Bluder, who was named head coach at St Ambrose one year out of college, is in her 30th year as a head coach and her 16th season at Iowa. Yori, who started her coaching career in 1986 at Creighton, has spent 12 seasons at the helm in Nebraska. These two women know each other, and each other’s style very well. Those styles are similar.
Nebraska defeated Iowa, 80-67, in their regular season meeting on February 1. Iowa is a somewhat more well-balanced scoring team than Nebraska, however, with all five scorers averaging in double figures. Nebraska has the higher individual scorer with Jordan Hooper, the coaches’ choice as league Player of the Year, averaging 20.4 points a game, but the Huskers, too, have balance, with three of Hooper's four fellow starters averaging double figures.
Point guards Logic (Iowa) and Theriot (Nebraska) are one-two in the conference in assists. The schools are the two best shooting teams in the league and rank sixth (Nebraska) and eighth (Iowa) in field goal defense. The only real statistical difference between the teams is rebounding, where Nebraska is noticeably better.
If both teams play at their very best, the guess here is that Iowa will win. But if that is to happen, Logic has to stay out of foul trouble. But if they both play less than their best, Nebraska has more margin for error and should win its first ever Big Ten Conference Tournament championship.
2014 has been full of surprises at this Big Ten Tournament, with the top seed, nationally ranked Penn State getting knocked out early, and the second seed, Michigan State, taking a powder on Saturday. That said, the only result that would be a real surprise in Sunday's final would be a poorly played or boring ball game.