- Kate Fagan, Columnist, espnW.com
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The most impressive assist of KK Houser's night came without the basketball.
With 3:18 left in the second overtime of Sunday's Big Ten final against Nebraska, Purdue forward Sam Ostarello rifled a chest pass into media row. The miscue wasn't solely hers. She was standing near the top of the key, looking to swing the ball to reserve guard Chantel Poston on the left wing. Only problem was, Poston was looking to go backdoor. You could see Ostarello's eyes widen as soon as she released the pass, clearly wishing she could reel the ball back in.
Ostarello looked at Poston; Poston looked at Ostarello. Panic singed the air. Purdue's lead (it had scored on the first two possessions of the second overtime) was evaporating, again.
Then, Houser stepped into the frame, palms faced down.
"It's fine," she said to Ostarello. Ostarello nodded and jogged down court. Houser looked at Poston and repeated herself. The two guards stepped together for a second, and Houser put her hand on Poston's arm and shrugged like it was no big deal, like Purdue wasn't a few well-played minutes away from winning its first Big Ten women's basketball tournament since 2008.
"OK," Poston said, seemingly releasing the weight of the turnover.
Less than 15 minutes later, Purdue was cutting down the nets after a 74-70 double-overtime win that ended the Boilermakers' three-year "drought" at the Big Ten tourney. (Ohio State won the conference title in 2009-11.)
"I knew I had to keep us extra calm, and I really felt that calm in the moment," said Houser, who scored 19 points and played 39 minutes without a turnover. "I really felt like everything was going to be fine.
"Plus," Houser said with a smile, "Chantel can be hard on herself and get really worked up, so I went right over to her and made sure she knew it was fine."
It was better than fine. After her conversation with Houser, Poston appeared to soar, hands level with the rim, to grab a crucial offensive rebound. She came down underneath Purdue's hoop and quickly dished to Ostarello for the score.
In a game that included 12 ties and six lead changes, Purdue couldn't shake pesky Nebraska in regulation. At least a half-dozen times, the Huskers looked beaten inside Bankers Life Fieldhouse. They were down double digits in the first half and trailed by three possessions with only a few minutes remaining in regulation. But like a jack-in-the-box, Nebraska kept popping back into the game. By the second overtime, the game belonged to Purdue, and Nebraska's Lindsey Moore (27 points) missed two long 3-pointers in the final few seconds.
Houser's calm confidence came at the end of a tournament in which she struggled. She entered Sunday's final with just four points in the quarterfinal and five in the semifinal. Across those two games, she also committed eight turnovers. Purdue coach Sharon Versyp didn't even have Houser on the court during the final 8:12 of Saturday's last-second win against top-seeded Penn State.
But on Sunday, she was the Boilermakers' leader, both on and off the stat sheet.
"Certain players stepped up each game, and I said to her, 'You're going to be the one that steps up and carries us through today,' and she absolutely did that," Versyp said. "And KK's gotten stronger. Her leadership skills continue to get better, and she doesn't carry one game to the next."
Houser's performance was the difference in a game that featured two teams with nearly identical styles. Nebraska won the only other meeting between these two teams, a triple-overtime victory at the beginning of February. After playing a team-high 49 minutes in that marathon game, Houser's surgically repaired right knee started to act up (she tore her ACL during the first game of the 2010-11 season). She said Sunday that the knee felt good, even after playing three games in three nights.
The Huskers, playing in their first Big Ten tourney, knew they would need two things to beat Purdue on Sunday: strong rebounding and balanced scoring. They couldn't find either. Purdue beat them on the boards (51-40), and Nebraska's offense belonged almost solely to Moore and Jordan Hooper (25 points). No other player scored in double figures.
"We're very confident right now, and even though we lost, I still think our confidence is right where it should be, hopefully leading into the NCAAs," Moore said.
Purdue (24-8) earned the conference's automatic berth into the NCAA tournament. Nebraska (24-8) has likely played its way into an at-large berth but will have to wait for the bracket reveal March 12.
After Sunday's game, the Boilermakers danced around the court and waited for their turn to cut down a piece of the net, singing along to DJ Khaled's "All I Do Is Win." After cutting her piece of the twine, Houser climbed down the wobbly, yellow ladder and passed the scissors to one of her teammates.
It wasn't her most crucial assist of the night, but it was probably her happiest.
Kate Fagan is a columnist for espnW.