INDIANAPOLIS, IN – The No. 19 Michigan State Spartans (23-7 OVR, 14-5 B1G) were 4-6 this season when trailing after the first half, but the Spartans bucked that trend Friday night in Indianapolis. MSU, the third seed in the conference, defeated the sixth-seeded Purdue Boilermakers (20-11, 10-9) in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Women’s Basketball Tournament, 65-64.
MSU has played “A Tale of Two Halves” before, and as cliche as it may sound, it is appropriate once again.
Michigan State came out flat. The team, the band, the cheerleaders…everyone.
Both MSU and Purdue turned the ball over on their first possessions of the game. And neither team could fix that problem, ending the first quarter with six and five turnovers, respectively.
The Spartans concluded the first quarter shooting 6-for-16 from the field and 0-for-4 from three. Purdue had the momentum and the 18-12 lead.
The Boilermaker fans did not take over Bankers Life Fieldhouse in numbers, but they made up for it with noise, sounding like a Purdue home game at some points.
The second quarter was much of the same for MSU, going 5-for-16 and 0-for-4 from three. Redshirt junior Aerial Powers, with 13 points and six rebounds, was the only bright spot for Michigan State.
At the the half, TorI Jankoska was 0-5 from the field in 13 minutes on the court. The team also committed 10 turnovers. With that number of turnovers and only four assists, Suzy Merchant knew that her team was better than the first two quarters.
And her halftime speech must have been something special.
“Well, yeah, that was an interesting conversation,” Merchant said. “We had four assists at halftime. So, we were really selfish, self-centered, our transition defense wasn’t very good. People were not defending very well.”
Purdue had completely taken graduate student Jasmine Hines out of the game. Hines went into the locker room only putting up one shot (and missing), grabbing two rebounds, and committing three turnovers.
“Coming into the game we knew Purdue had a pretty strong post presence,” Hines said. “We just knew that we had to get the ball inside and just attack and try to get them in foul trouble – we didn’t do a good job of that in the first half.”
Coach Merchant was not happy with the way Hines and rest of the team was playing.
“I got into Hines quite a bit,” Merchant said. “Because, you know, she can’t just show up one game and not the next…got into a couple other people as well.”
MSU trailed 32-25 at the half, going 11-for-32 from the field and 0-for-8 from 3-point distance. Purdue was 11-for-23 and 2-for-4 from three. They were also out-rebounding the Spartans, 19-16.
With Jankoska struggling, Branndais Agee had to step up. She went 3-for-8 from the field and 0-for-4 on 3-pointers in the half, but that did not slow her down.
“Well, I thought I was open and I knew we needed a shot,” Agee said. “So, I took it. I mean, you can’t make every shot. So yeah. Just got to be confident.”
When the teams came out of the tunnel to warm up for the second half, no one could tell MSU had just played one of their more forgettable halves of the season. All the players were smiling, talking, and carrying themselves in a very positive demeanor.
Free throws were the biggest difference for the Spartans in the second half. They were playing aggressive and getting to the line, resulting in a three-point advantage at the charity strike (MSU 9-for-10, PUR 6-for-6).
MSU found themselves down four as the clock approached 0:00 in the third quarter, and then Agee pulled up and knocked down the team’s first 3-pointer of the game, cutting the Purdue lead to 44-43.
Despite the encouraging signs in warm-ups, the team shot 4-for-16 from the field. Even Powers struggled, forcing a few shots in the quarter.
Although the team shot 25 percent from the field in the quarter, they still outscored Purdue 18-12 in the third.
The fourth quarter almost mirrored the start of the game with turnovers, but MSU was not the team committing them. Purdue turned the ball over on their first two possessions, and momentum was swinging in favor of Sparty.
The 9:25 mark in the fourth brought a Tori Jankoska layup, her first points of the game.
“She’s better than what she’s playing,” Merchant said. “She’s too focused on it [her shot]. It seems to define her…and it’s frustrating – we need her to continue to move forward.”
Two minutes later, Powers got a steal and connected with a streaking Jankoska who made her layup, giving the Spartans a two-point lead.
Before Purdue head coach Sharon Versyp knew what was going on, Jankoska was 2-for-2 in the half, Hines had taken over the paint, and Powers was still rolling.
“When we took the lead,” Powers said. “I felt like we needed to push the lead, you know. We were playing behind the entire game.”
With 15 seconds remaining in the contest, Powers was at the free throw line to give MSU a four point lead. Powers split the two shots and Purdue had a glimpse of hope.
Purdue’s Bridget Perry got an offensive rebound while seconds rapidly flew off the clock and was able to get the putback to go, cutting the lead to 65-64.
The Spartans had trouble trying to get the ball inbounds with four seconds left, forcing Powers to lunge out of bounds and throw the ball off of a Boilermaker’s face just to keep possession.
“What went through my mind is ‘Oh, my goodness, we need to get the ball back,’” Powers said. “So the only thing I thought is to hit it off of her. I didn’t mean to hit her in the face, but, I mean, it’s about survival.”
One successful pass in-bounds later, and Michigan State was moving on in the tournament..
On the same day as being named to the Wooden Award Final 15, Aerial Powers played like her team needed her to. She has ‘put the team on her back’ before and Friday night was no exception. Powers did everything, finishing with 26 points, 12 rebounds, three assists, two steals, and a block. And she even won the opening tip.
“I’m proud of how some of those kids responded,” Merchant said. “In particular, I thought Hines was, you know, really a catalyst in that second half. And I thought Aerial was really good all the way around.”
MSU is now on a five-game winning streak and headed to the semifinals of the Big Ten Women’s Basketball Tournament to face two-seed Ohio State.
MSU and OSU faced off in the final regular season game of the year. On February 28th, it took three overtimes to decide a winner between the two teams. Now, a week later, they will play again for a shot at the Big Ten championship game.