The Michigan State women’s basketball team has officially broken the curse of meeting Purdue in the Big Ten Tournament that’s held them 1-5 since 1996. The Spartans defeated the Boilermakers after a suspenseful 40 minutes, 71-67.
"Just really proud of this team. They've been through a lot with all the injuries we've had and the adversity, but to see them continue is just...," MSU Head Coach Suzy Merchant said postgame with a huge smile. "They've stayed in every game, fought every possession and I'm really, really proud of them."
The Spartans opened the first quarter rough. Despite holding the lead at the 10-minute marker, they managed to pick up eight team fouls, including a technical on the bench and coaches for allegedly making noise during free throws.
The second quarter is where things warmed up. Ladies and gentlemen, freshman forward Matilda Ekh was back. While her three-ball still hasn’t reached its peak that quickly, she has improved from the last two games, where she only went 2-for-25 from the field and managed to rake in seven points on 75% field shooting in the second quarter to put MSU up four at halftime.
Senior guard Nia Clouden was forced to sit at the start of the second quarter for 10 minutes, due to picking up three personal fouls early. She’s their dominant scorer, leading with 11 points after the first quarter, and Merchant was not going to let them knock her out quite so easily. She swapped in with junior forward Jayla James and, by the grace of the basketball gods, the fouls slowed down … until the third quarter opened.
"You play hard and whatever happens, happens," Clouden said postgame. "You can live with getting a foul if you're playing hard on defense, or trying to box out or shut a good screen (down). We've just got to focus on keeping our level of aggression up and still trying to be smart, keep our hands off."
Graduate forwards Tamara Farquhar and Alisia Smith both tallied in, yes, more fouls, and the Canadian was pushed to the bench with four. It was a battle, with all of Merchant’s key players teetering with what can be considered basketball death and fouling out, what was she to do? The bench has been small all season, but it has to feel smaller in high-pressure situations such as these.
"They're obviously a really physical team who puts their bigs down low," Purdue sophomore guard Madison Layden said postgame. "We knew we had to do a good job of rebounding and, like coach said, I thought we did ... that in the beginning of the game. Towards the end we struggled."
On the other end, Purdue was struggling to get the lid of the basket. At one point in the second quarter, they were only 1-for-11 from the field. The majority of their points came from getting to the line, where sophomore guard Madison Layden was of the utmost perfection (4-for-4) to lead her team with 12 overall points at the half.
Layden, in partnership with junior guard Abbey Ellis, went on to sink more key threes throughout the morning, keeping the game within one or even tied at certain points.
Turnovers were the other early issue. Freshman guard DeeDee Hagemann seemed to have butterfingers when it came from meeting her teammates at lengths across the court. She had three of MSU’s 10 turnovers in the first half and Clouden added another two, accounting for half. MSU was able to capitalize 20 points off 15 Purdue turnovers by the end.
The narrative seemed to remain the same from their first meeting, that’s for sure. As they did before, they were holding a two- to four-point lead over their opponent for the majority of the game. However, they didn’t succumb to the same pressures as before.
Junior forward Rickie Woltman was a defensive brick wall at the five in the first half and reverted to offensive scoring stamina in the second. She was a tough match for junior center Taiyier Parks, who prevailed regardless.
The Spartans were led by Clouden with 23 points, four rebounds and four assists. Her efforts were backed by Smith with 15 points and four rebounds and Parks with 12 points and nine rebounds. Ekh added 10 points, Farquhar added nine points and nine rebounds and Hagemann added seven assists.
The Boilermakers were led by Layden with 17 points, five rebounds and four assists. Her efforts were backed by Ellis with 17 points, five rebounds and three assists and junior guard Jeanae Terry with 14 points, eight rebounds and seven assists.
"Congrats to Michigan State," Purdue Head Coach Katie Geralds said postgame. "They were pretty gritty down the stretch. I thought we did a really good job for about 36 minutes on the defensive glass and then they kind of got a couple down the stretch. I don't know about you, but I love the fight of my basketball team. Had a hell of a lot of fun out there today."
The Spartans (15-14, 9-9) will advance to the third round of the Big Ten Tournament, meeting No. 1 Ohio State tomorrow morning at 11:30 a.m. in Gainbridge Fieldhouse.
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