March 2, 2023
Big Ten Tournament notebook: Day 1 live from Minneapolis
How Penn State, Rutgers advanced
MINNEAPOLIS — Curtains have officially gone up for the 2023 Big Ten Tournament at Target Center in Minneapolis. Day one of five, and games one and two of 13 are officially in the books.
Today’s midweek double matinee did not disappoint. The Big Ten has had a flair for the dramatic all season long and that theme held true as Penn State and Rutgers eked out close wins against Minnesota and Northwestern respectively to extend their seasons another day.
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Minnesota vs. Penn State
The game could not have started worse for the hometown Gophers. It’s always difficult to beat any one team three times in one season and Penn State made that task look nearly impossible for Minnesota in the first half.
The Nittany Lions came right out of the gate with a blitzing press intended to overwhelm the Gophers’ young roster. A tactic that had some effect in December’s double overtime loss to Minnesota at Williams Arena and proved to make a massive difference today. Penn State jumped out to a 21-3 lead and Minnesota had more turnovers than points for most of the first quarter.
“Honestly, it was kind of a mirror of the first game that we played them,” Penn State head coach Carolyn Kieger said. “They turned it over in the first half and then they kind of calmed down. For us, we knew we could get after them and pressure them and kind of expose their experience a little bit here in March.
“I thought our team did a really good job staying on their feet and corralling them into traps and honestly not falling. A lot of good job from the back row of our press coming up to get the steals. Credit total team defense for that, no doubt.”
Minnesota ended the quarter on a 6-0 run to turn the deficit into a more manageable, but the intensity of the Penn State press never allowed Lindsay Whalen’s team to so much as approach the halfcourt line without a sense of urgency all game.
The biggest star of the game had to have been Penn State’s Chanaya Pinto, who was directly responsible for forcing six of Minnesota’s turnovers, which always seemed to lead to points in transition. Pinto finished the game with seven points and eight rebounds to go with her tone-setting six steals.
“She’s one of our biggest juice leaders. We know what she can do in that press,” Penn State senior guard Lehlani Kapinus said. “When she’s being physical and bringing it on defense, it gives her energy. She got offensive rebounds too because of it. She just showed out today, and we needed her to do that.”
Minnesota’s freshman phenom Mara Braun did all she could to spark a comeback and the Gophers nearly pulled it off. Trailing by a score of 63-48 at the official TV timeout with 6:06 remaining in the fourth quarter, Minnesota was down to their last chance. A quick pair of threes from Braun and senior Isabelle Gradwell ignited an 18-3 run that tied the game. A Rose Micheaux jumper made it 66-66 after Minnesota forced a backcourt turnover with a press of their own.
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It proved to be the final bucket from the field of the game for the Gophers, and a Makenna Marisa and-one on the other end of the floor gave Penn State enough to hold on to the win.
Marisa paced the Nittany Lions offense with a team-high 22 points on 9-of-19 shooting from the field. The third time she’s hit the 22-point mark in her last six games. Braun enjoyed another great scoring outing for Minnesota. The freshman hit the 25-point mark for the fifth time this season. The Wayzata, MN product has hit double-figure scoring in all nine games dating back to February 1st, averaging 17.4 points per game in that span.
Penn State played the entire fourth quarter and the end of the third without point guard Shay Ciezki, who went down with a right ankle injury after playing fantastic all afternoon. Coach Kieger expressed optimism after the game that Ciezki would be okay, but did not confirm if her point guard would be available against the Wolverines.
Rutgers vs. Northwestern
Game Two featured a closer contested matchup between Rutgers and Northwestern. The last-place Wildcats jumped out to a 13-5 lead to start the game. The Scarlet Knights took the lead back right away, answering with a 10-0 run and held the advantage for most of the night.
A tremendous shooting night from beyond the arc led by sophomore Caileigh Walsh kept Northwestern within a fighting chance of stealing the win. Walsh shot 6-of-9 from deep, marking a career-high in three pointers made and matched her career high with 24 points.
Rutgers freshman guard Kaylene Smikle matched Walsh’s bucket-getting and did her one better, leading all scores on the day with 26 and drained 4-of-7 from three herself. The outing marked the sixth time this season she’s gone for 25+ and the 11th time she’s eclipsed 20, leading all Big Ten freshmen and paving the way to extend the season another day for Rutgers and their conference-low roster of eight players.
“I’m really proud of the team, our eight players. We’ve had eight all season long, and we’ve hung in there, been very resilient, worked,” Rutgers head coach Coquese Washington said. “This is our fourth game in nine days, and not one person on this team was ready to fold because of the challenge. So to be here and be in a position to advance in the Big Ten Tournament, it’s really a testament to the work and the belief and just the resilience that our team has shown all year.”
Smikle was spectacular, but fouled out down the stretch and the Scarlet Knights depended on equally spectacular junior forward Chyna Cornwell, who put up 15 points and 15 rebounds to notch her team-leading ninth double-double of the season and her first with 15+ in both categories. Five of her 15 points came in the final 3:35 after Northwestern tied the game at 53-53. The Connover, NC product also swatted a season-high four blocks.
Smikel may have been on the bench in the waning minutes of the game, but still provided the same energy she had brought up and down the floor from the jump.
“Kaylene was like, she was hype on the bench,” Cornwell said. “Even when she fouled out, she was hype on the bench, supporting her teammates and keeping us going. That was really heartfelt for me. That was like, yeah, that was really good for me.”
Penn State has earned itself another possible revenge date and will tip off against Michigan in Game Two on Thursday, March 2. The Scarlet Knights have their work cut out for them. A third meeting with Illinois looms in the final game of tomorrow’s slate, the Illini have already defeated Rutgers twice this season and neither games were close.
Day Two of the Big Ten Tournament gets started with No. 9 Michigan State vs. No. 8 Nebraska at 11:30 am CT. ESPN Bracketology currently has Nebraska slated as one of its First Four Out and the Spartans as one of the Next Four Out. A universe exists where this year’s Big Ten is an eight-bid league in the NCAA Tournament and whoever wins this game will have the chance to sneak in. The stakes are plenty high heading into Day Two in Minneapolis.
Written by Terry Horstman
Terry Horstman is a Minneapolis-based writer and covers the Minnesota Lynx beat for The Next. He previously wrote about the Minnesota Timberwolves for A Wolf Among Wolves, and his other basketball writing has been published by Flagrant Magazine, HeadFake Hoops, Taco Bell Quarterly, and others. He's the creative nonfiction editor for the sports-themed literary magazine, the Under Review.