Hoffman Estates, Ill. – It wasn’t pretty, but when you’re taking on the champ, all that matters is who’s left standing.
That’s how the MSU women’s basketball team felt after avenging two double-digit regular season losses by downing No. 8 Penn State 54-46 in the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament. The Spartans held the top-seeded Nittany Lions to a season-low 22.4 percent shooting from the floor and their lowest scoring total of the season.
MSU advances to the finals of the conference tournament for the second time ever, and first since the 2004-05 season that ended with a loss in the national championship game to Baylor. The Spartans will meet No. 3-seed Purdue in the championship at 4 p.m. Sunday after splitting the season series.
The Spartans didn’t play much better, going 20-for-52 from the floor, lowlighted by a 18.5 shooting percentage in the first half, but their tenacious defense and rebounding – MSU held a 52-38 advantage on the glass – carried them through.
“That’s what makes me proud is a lot of people can play with Penn State for 23 minutes, maybe 30, maybe 32, maybe 36,” head coach Suzy Merchant said. “… So I was very pleased.”
Senior guard Jasmine Thomas made the clutch plays down the stretch once again, leading the way for MSU by scoring 19 points. Another 16 points and nine rebounds came from sophomore forward Becca Mills.
MSU powered through this one with just seven players after losing redshirt freshman forward Akyah Taylor to injury in Friday’s win against Michigan and got only eight minutes out of senior forward Courtney Schiffauer because of foul trouble.
After heading into the locker room down 19-17, Schiffauer gave MSU its first lead of the game on her only basket of the night – 22-21 advantage three minutes into the second half. Penn State guard Maggie Lucas, the Big Ten Player of the Year, countered with a 3-pointer before Mills gave the lead back to MSU with consecutive buckets.
Junior forward Annalise Pickrel’s breakaway layup put the Spartans ahead by four, and then Thomas added back-to-back jumpers to put the margin at 32-24.
Penn State’s Alex Bentley was left wide open on the next possession and nailed a 3-pointer that felt like the beginning of a comeback from the potent Nittany Lion offense. Lucas then hit consecutive triples, which left Penn State down, 34-33, with 8:28 left to play and forced Merchant to call timeout.
From there, the Nittany Lions went cold and allowed the Spartans to go on a 10-0 run and build their largest lead of the game, 44-33.
“They played good defense,” Bentley said. “They tried to stop us from getting in the lane and forced us to go into the baseline, and we just couldn’t get our offense going.”
Thomas seemed to deliver the dagger as she sprinted past the defense for a layup with 40 ticks left that gave MSU a 50-40 lead, sending the section of Spartan fans into an uproar.
But Lucas wasn’t finished yet, and the conference’s most decorated player hit a pair of 3-pointers in six seconds to cut MSU’s lead to five with 24 seconds to play. A pair of free throws from Thomas and one from junior guard Klarissa Bell would put the game away, however, as Penn State missed its final two 3-pointer opportunities.
Penn State head coach Coquese Washington said the difference in the third matchup between these teams was her squad’s poor shooting performance, which she attributed to the Spartans’ defensive effort.
“I thought Michigan State played a very good defensive game. They’re a very good defensive team,” Washington said.
“And the played with a lot of energy on the defensive end, a lot of enthusiasm, and we didn’t match that energy. So that’s the difference.”
For the third day in a row, the Spartans will play an opponent for the third time this season when they take on Purdue tomorrow. MSU took down the Boilermakers on the road on Feb. 28 after dropping the first game at Breslin Center in overtime.
“I’m proud of them, I really am,” Merchant said.
“I thought it was one of the most kind of inspiring – it was just fun to watch a band of kids just fight and compete and not (have) everything go their way, but find a way.”
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