March 3, 2023
Big Ten Tournament notebook: Day 2 live from Minneapolis
High drama on and off the court in Minnesota
MINNEAPOLIS — Three nail-biters, one blowout, one coaching resignation, eight teams left. My caffeinated thoughts on a busy day in the Big Ten:
No. 9 Michigan State 67, No. 8 Nebraska 64
Day 2 of the Big Ten Tournament wasted no time in ramping up the stakes. The first game of the day featured the No. 8 Nebraska Cornhuskers against the No. 9 Michigan State Spartans. A razor-thin margin separated these two heading into today’s action, as both had 13 losses overall on the season and seven losses in conference play.
The Big Ten has been one of the toughest conferences in the country this season, and both teams had several matchups with NET top-50 teams throughout the year. Both teams can make an argument to be included in the NCAA Tournament on strength of schedule alone, especially if the committee awards the Big Ten eight bids.
Heading into the Big Ten Tournament, ESPN’s Charlie Creme projected the Big Ten as a seven-bid league with Nebraska as one of the first four teams out of the NCAA Tournament field and Michigan State as one of the next four out. That’s close enough to make it possible to see eight happy Big Ten viewing parties on Selection Sunday, which effectively made this game the Big Ten Eighth Place Championship.
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Nebraska had defeated Michigan State 71-67 on Feb. 2 in the only regular-season meeting between the teams this season, and this was another tight contest.
Turnovers set the tone early on, with both the Huskers and the Spartans doing a good job taking the ball away as well as giving it. Michigan State did a better job capitalizing on Nebraska’s miscues in the early going and led 15-9 after the first quarter. The advantage on the scoreboard held fairly steady for the Spartans as they led for 37:44.
The Nebraska offense didn’t stay silent forever; eventually, First-Team All-Big Ten selection Jaz Shelley started to cook. Shelley finished with a game-high 24 points on 5-for-10 shooting from deep. The trio of Shelley, senior Sam Haiby and sophomore Alexis Markowski helped Nebraska claw back into the game any time it looked like the Spartans had a chance of opening it up.
The Huskers took their first lead after two free throws by Shelley made the score 41-40 with 2:36 left in the third. That lead lasted all of 10 seconds before DeeDee Hagemann took it right back for the Spartans, who never hit the pause button on their swarming defense.
Hagemann and senior guard Moira Joiner were spectacular at both ends of the floor for the Spartans. On both occasions when Nebraska grabbed the lead in this game, a bucket by Hagemann swung the momentum right back in MSU’s favor.
“Going into that fourth quarter, I remember I looked at DeeDee, and I was like, okay, we need to get a cushion here. Nebraska’s a very good team,” Joiner said. “So not necessarily I … kept looking for my shot because I know I was looking for my teammates, too, but that was just kind of the mindset I had at that point.”
Joiner had the Spartans in position to put the Huskers away early in the fourth. An 11-0 Michigan State run, with six of the points coming from Joiner, opened the quarter and built a 57-44 lead for the Spartans.
Nebraska countered with an 8-0 run over the next two minutes and got it back to a one-possession game when a huge 3-pointer by Isabelle Bourne made it 67-64 with 44 seconds left. Both Shelley and junior Maddie Krull got good looks to tie the game in the final seconds, but neither of their 3-point attempts could find the bottom of the net, and the Spartans escaped.
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Michigan State’s reward is a chance to try to beat the top-seeded Indiana Hoosiers for the second time this season. It’s a challenge acting head coach Dean Lockwood knows his team won’t shy away from.
“I just told them in there, I’m dating myself with this one, but I feel like we just knocked out [boxer Joe] Frazier and now we’ve got [Muhammad] Ali waiting for us,” Lockwood said. “It’s just like, ‘Holy cow.’
“In all seriousness, we were very much who we are in that game. We pressed. We pressured. Obviously, you’ve got to make shots. Defense and rebounding can certainly keep you in games, but you also have to make some shots; you have to score points.”
Pressure defense and clutch offense extended Michigan State’s conference tournament stay until at least Friday. A date with a giant they’ve already slain is waiting for them. It’s no easy task, but Michigan State has the blueprint and the belief to do it again.
“I have to say unity of purpose. That’s how we beat Indiana,” Hagemann said. “Just staying locked in all 40 minutes.”
No. 5 Michigan 63, No. 13 Penn State 61
If Carolyn Kieger’s short-handed Nittany Lions were fatigued after giving Minnesota 40 minutes of hell in the tournament opener, they didn’t show it. Not even a little bit. Penn State gave fifth-seeded and nationally ranked Michigan all it could handle in a back-and-forth battle.
Playing without Shay Ciezki and Taniya Thompson, Penn State had to dig deep to beat the heavily talented Wolverines. The Nittany Lions weren’t short on heart in a game they did just about everything but win.
Senior guard Makenna Marisa played every single second and also played two or three roles in the absence of her backcourt mate Ciezki. After scoring 22 points in 39 minutes on Wednesday, Marisa put up 16 points and seven assists on Thursday.
Every bit as effective for PSU was sophomore Leilani Kapinus, who showed the defensive tenacity that Kieger said could make her one of the best defensive players in the country.
“I said this throughout the year: I think Leilani has potential to be one of the best players in the country,” Kieger said. “She’s gotten so much better in her off-ball defense. She’s always been a phenomenal on-ball defender. This off-season, she’s worked on becoming a great off-ball defender and rebounding. Her next step is going to be getting her team ready to play great defense.”
Michigan is a team all too familiar with playing short-handed this season but got good news on Thursday. Sophomore guard Laila Phelia played for the first time in 32 days and scored 13 points off the bench.
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“Laila’s a game-changer for sure,” Michigan head coach Kim Barnes Arico said. “She just has a speed, a gear, an athleticism that makes our team different. She was voted by the league as Second-Team All-Conference when she missed 32 days. So I think that shows the tremendous amount of respect that everyone in our league has for her.”
Junior Elise Stuck also came off the bench for Michigan and turned in the finest performance of her career in the Maize and Blue. Entering Thursday, Stuck had never attempted more than four shots from the field in a game, but she took five and made every single one.
“When you’re going to have someone come off the bench like that and give you such huge minutes, the deeper your team can be, especially in tournament time, is huge,” Michigan senior Emily Kiser said. “Elise gave great minutes. She’s always known for her hustle plays, but her offense was up there today, too. To come in and have the confidence to shoot those shots, I was in that position once in my career, and it’s really difficult. So credit to her for having that mindset.”
Phelia and Stuck combined for all 24 of Michigan’s bench points, which gave the Wolverines a 24-0 advantage in the category. Part of the discrepancy, of course, was due to a couple members of PSU’s bench being pushed into the starting lineup and needing to take on a bigger load defensively.
“I thought our bench stepped up in huge ways defensively,” Kieger said. “So I’m not for one second disappointed in what they brought offensively because they did their job. We put ourselves in a position to win and came down to the last possession.”
A defensive play by freshman Aicha Dia gave Penn State a chance to win at the end. Trailing 63-61, Michigan set up to inbound the ball in the frontcourt after a timeout. The ball found its way to consensus First-Team All Big Ten selection Leigha Brown. Dia swarmed Michigan’s star player and forced a jump ball, awarding possession to Penn State for one more chance.
The Wolverines played some fantastic defense of their own, forcing Marisa into a tough look that drew front iron and fell just short as time expired.
“I thought Penn State really battled,” Barnes Arico said. “Every time we would go up, they fought to come back. I think it was an unbelievable test for us. I just think it speaks to the competitive nature of our league and how strong we are from top to bottom.
“But when we needed to get that stop at the end, I was really proud of the way that our kids dug down and were able to come away with a victory. It’s March, survive and advance. Excited to be playing tomorrow.”
The Wolverines will face arch rival Ohio State following the conclusion of the Indiana vs. Michigan State game on Friday’s slate.
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No. 7 Purdue 57, No. 10 Wisconsin 55
The back-and-forth, up-and-down dramatics of the day continued well into the evening as Purdue stormed all the way back from 18 down against a plucky Wisconsin team, who had won four of their last five entering the tournament.
The Boilermakers had a difficult time getting a bucket early. Abbey Ellis scored 100% of Purdue’s points in the first quarter, a total of seven on 3-of-5 shooting from the field. Her teammates, meanwhile, shot 0-for-11.
Julie Pospisilova paced the Badgers early, scoring 11 of her 17 points in the first half and extending the lead to 30-12 with 4:27 left in the second quarter. Wisconsin didn’t score again until the 8:58 mark of the third. Purdue cut the lead in half and turned it into a completely different ball game.
“I think they were able to speed us up, and we kind of led them to be physical with us, and we didn’t respond right away,” Pospisilova said. “That basically just didn’t allow (us) to score, and we were not able to get ourselves together and just come together and play more confident.”
On the Purdue side of things, once the game settled in a bit, head coach Katie Gearlds adjusted and went with a more small ball approach to get the Boilermakers back in the game.
“We had watched on film the last few games they had been doubling the post really big and aggressively,” Coach Gearlds said. “That’s when I said maybe we just didn’t prepare Caitlyn (Harper) and Rickie (Woltman) enough to see those looks. Because it gave us a lot of fits.”
“I thought in the first quarter we were getting some open shots. Maybe came out a little tight. Maybe the moment got us. But once we were able to settle in and we went small, I thought Ava (Learn) did a really good job for us rim running on the defensive end, and in the second half we went even extra smaller to give ourselves some looks, and our kids stayed with it.”
The halftime adjustments worked, and Ellis got hot again in the second half, finishing with a game-high 19. Not to be outdone, Wisconsin’s Maty Wilke exploded from beyond the arc in the second half. The Beaver Dam, WI product hit four her game-high five threes in the second half and nearly gave the Badgers the victory when she drilled a cold blooded three from the left wing with 10.8 ticks remaining in the contest.
On the following possession, the ball found its way to Jayla Smith, who at the time had three points on 1-of-3 shooting from the field.
“I was where I was supposed to be at the right time. I think there were multiple options,” Smith said. “There were multiple options off the play. J.T. (Jeanae Terry) could’ve taken it, drove it down the lane for a layup. Cass in the corner, me on the wing. Whoever has the best shot. That was it.”
The ‘best shot’ turned out to be Smith’s, and the sophomore guard from Indianapolis drilled it to give Purdue a 57-55 lead with just under five seconds left in the game.
Wilke got another look as time expired, but couldn’t find the net and the seventh-seeded Boilermakers survived to earn a date with Caitlin Clark and the Iowa Hawkeyes.
“Just a gutsy, gritty effort by our ball club,” Coach Gearlds said. “We had the ball on the last play and made one more play than they did.”
No. 6 Illinois 81, No. 11 Rutgers 55
Fans attending the Thursday night finale were treated to the Genesis Bryant and Makira Cook show and what a show it was. The Fighting Illini backcourt stars combined for 45 points on 18-of-24 shooting from the field.
The sensational Illinois guards had no plans on letting a sixth consecutive Big Ten Tournament game come down to the wire. Instead, the Illini continued their magical run through 2022-23 with a convincing wire-to-wire victory, adding yet another reason why Illinois is one of the best stories in collegiate athletics this year.
Shauna Green’s squad had just beaten this same Rutgers team a matter of days ago in the regular season finale by a score of 75-53. Whether that game was looming in the minds of the Scarlet Knights, or they were worn down from taking everything Northwestern had to give yesterday, didn’t matter. Rutgers’ zone defense didn’t have a chance at stopping the flame-throwing Illini on this night.
“I feel like we were just ready to shoot, ready to let it fly,” Bryant said. “Sometimes we overthink the zone sometimes. And I feel like we had a lot of reps in practice, just working our plays. We were just confident in the zone.
“Really it was an advantage for us to watch the game (yesterday against Northwestern) and just kind of scout them. And we just played them, so I feel like both of those kind of were just hand in hand. We were just focused on ourselves. Not really putting pressure on anyone else, but just worried about us.”
Rutgers’ freshman phenom Kaylene Smikle still managed to fill up the boxscore, following up her 26-point outburst on Day One with another 22 points against Illinois, her 15th outing with 20+ on the season.
The upstart team from Urbana-Champaign just had too much firepower, adding another special chapter to an already special and improbable season, earning the opportunity to add another one on Friday against Maryland, who they lost to three weeks ago in the only meeting between the teams this season.
“I love this team. Absolutely love this team,” Coach Green said. “I’ve been coaching 20 years, and every team has their own story, their own journey, but from day one, this team has just — they’ve just believed. They believed that they could win probably even before I thought that they could win, to tell you the truth.”
Individually, Cook finished the night with 24 points on an incredible 10-of-13 shooting from the field, her fourth game with 24 or more points this season. Bryant added 21 on 8-of-11 from the field. Both tied for a game-high five assists.
Gophers and lynx Legend Lindsay Whalen steps down as head coach at the University of Minnesota
Between Thursday’s first two games, the University of Minnesota announced that Lindsay Whalen would step down as head coach of her alma mater.
Few people, if any, have meant more to basketball in Minnesota than Lindsay Whalen, and the announcement definitely cast a melancholic gloom over the day’s events.
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.
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