Updated: January 20, 2014, 2:32 AM ET

Little separates top teams in Big Ten

By Graham Hays | espnW.com

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Any temptation to make Sunday's game between No. 16 Penn State and Michigan State, the team ahead of the Lady Lions in the Big Ten standings when the ball tipped, into a game with immediate championship implications vanished, along with much feeling in fingers, on the walk from the parking lot to the doors of the Breslin Center.

And this was what looks like it will hold up as the warm day this week in East Lansing.

Still, there aren't wind chills like this in March and April, when trophies come out of storage and nets get shorn. This is January. Just January.

Closing out a weekend in which nine ranked teams lost to opponents that were either ranked lower or unranked, Penn State was content to avoid such a fate, take a 66-54 win short on artistry and head gratefully back home with the same 4-1 conference record as both Michigan State and Michigan. Let Sochi deal with artistic impression.

"It'd be great if we won every game by 50, but it's not always going to be pretty," Penn State coach Coquese Washington said. "You're not always going to have a great shooting night. But there are certain fundamentals you can focus on defensively, making other teams take tough shots. When you don't shoot the ball well, then you've got to be solid defensively. If you can do that you've got a shot every night."

That was the message delivered with the detachment of a professor Sunday, as well as that delivered presumably less sanguinely after an 84-74 loss at home against Purdue a week ago. Only once in the past two championship seasons had Penn State allowed as many as 84 points in a conference game. Thursday it allowed 42 points in a win against Ohio State. Sunday it allowed all of 20 points after halftime and held Michigan State more than 20 points below its season scoring average.

All Penn State had to do was find enough points. It had just enough options.

Ariel Edwards
Rich Barnes/USA TODAY SportsAriel Edwards tallied 16 points and six rebounds, and had no turnovers in 39 minutes.

Maggie Lucas, Dara Taylor and Ariel Edwards attempted 46 of Penn State's 57 field goals and 24 of its 36 free throws against the Spartans. As heavy a load as that was, it isn't far from the norm. Those three entered the game having attempted more than 60 percent of the Lady Lions' field goals this season. No team ranked ahead of Penn State in last week's top 25 relied nearly as heavily on three players. Washington said she would like more balance. It is difficult to see where it will come from.

There aren't many players in the Big Ten, or any conference, better defensively than Michigan State's Klarissa Bell. She got a few minutes of rest on the bench, and the Spartans did their share of switching, especially when Lucas came around the double screens Penn State likes to run for her, but mostly it was her job to shadow the sharpshooter. She did well. Lucas scored 16 points on 5-of-16 shooting and is shooting 34.5 percent in four games against Michigan State since the beginning of last season. But even if Lucas struggled, the trio combined for 50 points.

You know where the shots are coming from with the Lady Lions, but it's difficult to stop them.

"I think that was different," Bell said of the concentration of shots. "Especially Dara Taylor and Ariel Edwards; they'd come off that ball screen and they were just going. So we couldn't find an answer for that, unfortunately, tonight. They were making their layups and taking it to the basket and getting fouled. They were just the more aggressive team."

Edwards might be the single biggest reason Penn State remains where it is in the standings. Not that she's better or more valuable than Lucas or Taylor, but in addition to a defensive asset as a big body on the perimeter, she has been the third scorer the Lady Lions desperately need because they don't have a fourth or fifth scorer.

"She's super versatile," Taylor said. "She's a very tough matchup for a lot of defenses. She can push in transition, she can finish, she can shoot the jump shot, post up. She can defend '1' through '5,' basically. I think just her confidence is continuing to grow, and I think we're seeing that game in and game out."

When Edwards arrived in State College four seasons ago, she was a post player who had never logged minutes as a guard.

"You watch her play now and you can't tell that," Washington said. "You wouldn't know that she was kind of a back-to-the-basket low-block player. She's worked to transform her game to being a wing player, to being able to defend on the perimeter."

None of which means Penn State is now the favorite in the Big Ten (or again the favorite). A week ago, it was the team looking for lessons in defeat. Just as Michigan was after a loss against Michigan State last week. Just as Purdue was after a loss against Michigan on Wednesday. Just as Michigan State was Sunday night. You get the picture. There might not be a conference where less separates first and last, or at least first and seventh or eighth.

"You just got to look at the negatives and say we weren't playing together offensively very well tonight, and you've got to look at the other four games, when we were playing really well together," Bell said of the team's strong start in conference. "And we've just got to weigh the positives and the negatives and know we can't do what we did tonight. We've got to keep playing like we did those first four games. We were boxing out and getting those defensive rebounds and pushing it in transition."

All Big Ten teams can do right now is try not to get left out in the cold.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.

A trio of talking points

1. Sunday struggles for ACC elite: No major conference was immune from the weekend weirdness. In the Big 12, there was Kansas beating Baylor and some other struggles we'll get to momentarily. In the SEC, Kentucky nearly dropped a game at Auburn and Vanderbilt scored a mild upset against LSU. Colorado kept losing and Washington State kept winning in the Pac-12, while the Big Ten is one giant 50-50 proposition. But top billing, such as it is, goes to the ACC.

On what should have been a quiet Sunday, Georgia Tech led Maryland at halftime, Virginia Tech trailed Duke by a single possession in the closing minutes and Florida State and NC State lost by a combined 26 points on the road.

2. And then there were three (Big 12 contenders): To repeat, it's too early to settle conference championships. But darned if some erstwhile Big 12 contenders aren't testing the notion that it's too early to write off teams.

Tied at the end of regulation when they met on Jan. 5, Oklahoma and Iowa State appeared equally viable contenders. Iowa State won that game, but it didn't much matter. Neither has stopped stumbling since. Oklahoma lost at West Virginia on Saturday and dropped to 2-3 in the conference. Iowa State served up the bigger head scratcher in a loss at Kansas State that came on the heels of rare back-to-back home losses against Oklahoma State and West Virginia.

Iowa State forced a total of 27 turnovers in those games. By itself, that isn't necessarily damning. Not every team tries to be Kentucky, and the Cyclones weren't forcing all that many turnovers during a 14-0 start (14.4 per game). But if a team isn't forcing turnovers and can't dominate the boards the way it did against a soft early schedule, it has to get stops somewhere. Oklahoma State, West Virginia and Kansas State combined to shoot 44.4 percent in their wins. Of the three, only Oklahoma State is shooting that well for the entire season (and barely, at 44.5 percent). Yes, the Cyclones shot poorly from the 3-point line in the first two losses and couldn't get Hallie Christofferson going against the Wildcats on Saturday, but it's the other end of the court causing them headaches at the moment.

Guess which two teams play Tuesday in Ames with the loser staring at four conference losses?

Crystal Bradford
AP Photo/Joe RaymondCrystal Bradford (13 points, 15 rebounds, seven blocks, five assists, eight steals in 42 minutes) helped Central Michigan beat Bowling Green 82-79 in overtime.

3. Big drama, small settings: Conference titles aren't won or lost in the middle of January, but a string of key games this past week did set the parameters of some races. While fans understandably watched Monday's drama between Baylor and Connecticut, Iona went to Poughkeepsie and beat Marist on a jumper in the closing seconds from Damika Martinez (fourth nationally in scoring entering the weekend). The road win not only means the MAAC race now runs through New Rochelle, N.Y., but it broke Iona's 29-game losing streak against eight-time reigning conference champ Marist.

On Wednesday, Middle Tennessee asserted its claim to Conference USA supremacy with a 69-58 win against UTEP, forcing 25 turnovers and finishing with 10 more field goal attempts and 15 more free throw attempts than the Miners. UTEP, which began the week 13-2, then went to Charlotte and gave up 92 points in a loss, including 32 points on 12-of-15 shooting from Hillary Sigmon. Thursday brought Youngstown State's win against Green Bay.

But the weekend provided the best of them all when Central Michigan rallied from a 12-point deficit with less than four minutes to play in regulation to beat Bowling Green in overtime in a game between MAC unbeatens. For the first 36 minutes, Bowling Green was methodical, if a bit too careless with the ball in what proved a bit of foreshadowing. The Falcons made sure the game was played at the pace they wanted, not the pace desired by the team that put up more than 90 points at Purdue. Bowling Green's Alexis Rogers is one of the few players in the league who can stay with Central Michigan's Crystal Bradford, at least for stretches, and the latter was mired in a shaky shooting performance.

And then it all turned on its head in 223 crazy seconds, a span in which five Bowling Green turnovers led directly to eight points, and the Chippewas needed two offensive rebounds to finally get the tying basket with 29 seconds to play. Da'Jourie Turner was the scoring hero for Central Michigan down the stretch, but in not even nine minutes of the comeback and overtime, Bradford had five rebounds, four steals, three blocks, two points and one assist. She is one of a kind in the MAC. She might just be one of a kind.

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