- Kate Fagan, Columnist, espnW.com
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Brittany Rayburn bounced off the Bankers Life Fieldhouse court, high-fiving anyone with an empty palm.
She was the last of her teammates into the locker room, having been slowed by a postgame interview. Such is the fate of the player who hits the winning shot. Rayburn bounded down the corridor and turned to make a sharp left toward Purdue's locker room.
"Here she comes!" yelled a member of Purdue's band.
Rayburn spotted the group -- hard to miss in their white Purdue jerseys, carrying their oversized instruments -- and executed a perfect jump stop. She balled her hands into fists and released a triumphant yell, the noise of which, combined with the band's hooting and hollering, became trapped for a second in the tiny hallway.
Then she was gone, the last one into the winning locker room. Purdue's band headed for its bus, back to the hotel to rest up for Sunday's Big Ten tournament final against Nebraska (ESPN2, 4 p.m. ET).
Rayburn's scooped layup with 1.4 seconds remaining delivered for Purdue, the No. 4 seed, a 68-66 victory over the tournament's No. 1 seed, Penn State. Purdue coach Sharon Versyp drew up the play during the preceding timeout, with the ball earmarked for Rayburn's hands.
"I think, first of all, we executed it perfectly," Rayburn said afterward. "I think Coach drew up a perfect play for us. It was a play that had been working all second half. And we just kept going back to it ... the rest is history."
Purdue inbounded from the sideline in front of its bench. The ball landed in the hands of point guard Courtney Moses, who delivered a bounce pass to center Chelsea Jones at the elbow. Moses then cut off the ball and away from the play. Jones took one dribble and handed off to forward Chantel Poston, who was then forced out beyond the arc.
Rayburn, having freed herself on the left wing, caught the pass from Poston. Rayburn immediately drove baseline.
"I thought we did a good job defensively," Penn State coach Coquese Washington said. "And I just think Brittany Rayburn made a better shot. Sometimes that happens. ... She got it up high and it went in. So we defended it as well as you could defend without fouling."
The Nittany Lions managed nothing more than a desperate heave at the buzzer.
The Boilermakers' surprising victory was the second such win of the night. Just two hours before Rayburn caught on the left wing and worked her way to the hoop, the No. 6 seeded Cornhuskers sent No. 2 Ohio State back to Columbus with a convincing 77-62 victory.
When Purdue plays Nebraska on Sunday afternoon, it will be the first time since 1998 that none of the top three seeds are in the final.
It will be a matchup of two nearly identical teams. Nebraska played Purdue once, in West Lafayette, Ind., on Feb. 2. That game went three OTs before the Huskers managed a 93-89 victory. For each team, playing the other is a little like looking in the mirror. The game starts with defense, man-to-man, and is aided by properly executed offensive sets. Nebraska and Purdue are different than Penn State and Ohio State in that the Huskers and Boilermakers are dependent on scrappy, man-to-man defense first, offense second.
Either team can patch together a win without a red-hot shooting hand, but neither can win without all-out defense.
In the first half of Saturday's nightcap, Moses, Purdue's sparkplug sophomore guard, spent a decent amount of time sprawled on the court, diving for loose balls. At one point, Moses, guarding Penn State star Alex Bentley, cut off Bentley's middle penetration and drew an offensive charge. Moses popped off the floor and ran down court clapping her hands. (Moses isn't shy about reacting to good plays, even her own.) The Boilermakers also held Bentley's backcourt mate, Maggie Lucas, to nine points (10 below her average), using superior defensive communication by a trio of defenders: KK Houser, Poston, and Dee Dee Williams.
"I think we disrupted her," Versyp said of her team's defense on Lucas. "Kind of just chasing her, face-guarding her everywhere."
Nebraska, in its first Big Ten tournament, plays a full-court man-to-man defense because, without a traditional starting center, the Huskers need to extend the game 94 feet. Purdue, in essence, aims to do the same thing. Both Purdue and Nebraska's offenses are jump-started at the guard spot. The Boilermakers give the ball to Moses, the Huskers to Lindsey Moore. And both teams also have a go-to player at the forward spot. Rayburn fills those shoes for Purdue, while Nebraska sophomore Jordan Hooper (6-foot-2) is a shooting guard in a forward's body.
What will likely determine Sunday's winner is Nebraska's ability to get into its motion offense. Both teams will dig in their heels on defense, but which will find the gaps first? Will Moses roam the perimeter and find space for her 3? Or will Hooper go to work with her range of offensive talents?
Nebraska coach Connie Yori's team spent much of Saturday running a four-out, one-post-high spread offense. Ohio State focused on stopping Hooper, Moore, and freshman Emily Cady, leaving senior guard Kaitlyn Burke free on the outside. Burke, who averages 5.4 points a game, scored 20 points on Saturday. The Huskers made nine 3-pointers and grabbed 20 offensive rebounds. They patched together an offensive attack, but it started by handcuffing Ohio State with their suffocating defense.
"If we were a zone team, a team that didn't put as much effort into the defensive end, it might be easier," Yori said. "We're not going to change things now, unless we want to put a 2-3 zone in at the hotel tonight. But we probably won't do that."
Sunday's game might not be the flashiest matchup -- that likely would have been Penn State vs. Ohio State -- but if Rayburn's postgame excitement is any indication, we're gonna see a lot of heart.
18dBonnie D. Ford