- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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HOFFMAN ESTATES, Ill. -- Letters of welcome from schoolchildren line the hallway outside the locker rooms at the Sears Centre Arena, each Big Ten team in town for the conference tournament allotted a dozen or so such missives.
One letter to Purdue offered these words of encouragement.
"I really hope you win," the handwritten message began. "Even if you don't win, at least you know you tried. You'll probably win if you try."
Score one for the optimism of innocents.
After just a solitary upset in the first two days of play in the Big Ten tournament, surprise ruled the semifinals -- first mild and then major.
Coming out of a February in the wilderness that dropped it out of the regular-season title race, third-seeded Purdue beat second-seeded Nebraska 77-64 to reach the championship game for the second season in a row and the 13th time in school history.
And after another in a run of recent seasons interrupted by injuries and in which it seemed to scrape together double-digit conference wins on effort alone, No. 4 seed Michigan State stunned top-seeded Penn State 54-46. It's the first championship game appearance for the Spartans since 2005, when they also reached another slightly bigger championship game a few weeks later.
Strange as it sounds given the tournament seedings and a pair of opponents in Lindsey Moore and Jordan Hooper who can make an afternoon miserable for any defense, Purdue probably couldn't have drawn a better opponent than Nebraska to sharpen the mind in the wake of a slide in which it lost five of seven games in February, including one to last-place Indiana, and a sluggish tournament opener against 11th-seeded Wisconsin.
It isn't quite the rivalry that Notre Dame and Connecticut are engaged in at the moment, but the series between an established Big Ten power and the league's newest member (at least until Maryland and Rutgers arrive) is on the same lap as the leader in that race.
The first conference game between the schools went three overtimes in West Lafayette last season, the Cornhuskers eventually heading home with the win. The Boilermakers evened the series in last season's Big Ten tournament, but only after the teams played a pair of overtimes in the championship game.
The lone meeting this season before Saturday afternoon went, naturally, to overtime. The Boilermakers got the road win in Lincoln.
"Finally, regulation," Purdue's Sam Ostarello joked of the team's reaction to a third consecutive win against Nebraska. "I think all of us were just so elated, just because it was a regulation game. But it feels like we've played them seven or eight times, literally. I think we match up really well with them. It's always a great basketball game. I think that's really neat that we know that as a team and recognize how good of a game it can be."
Purdue came out and played like a team jolted out its somnolence. It was the aggressor, whether in the pressure applied by guards KK Houser and Courtney Moses, Ostarello's rebounding or freshman Taylor Manuel's precocious post play.
Moses said the team's penchant for March success has a lot to do with heart, energy and all those things we hear a lot about in winning locker rooms this time of year. But those things only take a team so far.
Yes, the Boilermakers looked like a team that wanted it Saturday. They also looked like a team that knew how to get it, shooting 54 percent in the first half.
"During February a lot of the teams were throwing zones at us," Moses said. "Throwing triangle-and-2, box [and] one. So it was things that we hadn't seen during the first part of the Big Ten season. Teams just played man [early in the season]. It takes time. You have to get the fundamentals down of how to go against a zone like that."
Purdue's offensve efficiency dropped after halftime. Its field goal percentage fell from 54 percent in the first half to 35 percent in the second half, but its lead never shrank to single digits. While Nebraska's Moore did all she could to bring her team back, Purdue made Hooper a bystander for much of the second half. She finished with just four points after halftime and 15 in the game.
"We had a total of four to five players today that really rotated on her and tried to contain her," Ostarello said. "You're not going to stop her. She's not going to miss a lot of shots -- her shot is so pure. But it's just rotating and knowing what kind of on-ball screens [are coming], or switches or what kind of hedging and just really rotating players on her."
If Purdue played perhaps its best all-around game of the season in victory, Michigan State put on a defensive show of force to stun a team that was supposed to be the class of the conference.
The Spartans won in part because Becca Mills and Jasmine Thomas came through with big offensive performances, totaling 35 points between them for a team that shot 19 percent in the first half and 60 percent in the second.
It won in part because Jasmine Hines pulled down 14 boards, which happened to be the exact amount by which her team outrebounded the conference leader in rebound margin.
"She gets people in foul trouble because she's so powerful," Michigan State coach Suzy Merchant said of Hines. "And tonight, it's the best I've ever seen her defensive rebound, and that was probably more important than the offensive rebounding."
But the Spartans also play again this weekend because Klarissa Bell and Kiana Johnson exhibited the kind of defense that got the Spartans here in the first place.
Bell spent much of Friday's quarterfinal running around screens in pursuit of Michigan's Kate Thompson, the NCAA's most prolific 3-point shooter entering the weekend. Less than 24 hours later, she spent much of Saturday evening trying to maintain contact with Maggie Lucas, the fourth-most accurate 3-point shooter in the country.
Unlike Thompson, Lucas eventually got her points, but rarely has a shooter had to work as hard for her reward. Whether it was Bell or Kiana Johnson, or even Mills or Hines in mismatches, it took Lucas 22 field goal attempts to get 23 points, most of them coming when the Lady Lions already trailed by multiple possessions in the second half.
"She is definitely a tough player to play against, to guard," Bell said of Penn State's leading scorer. "There's lot of screens set for her, and then when she gets the ball, she can make a move and drive past you. Michigan has a really good offense for Kate Thompson. I was chasing after her all last night, so that was difficult. They both have really good offenses for their shooters, and they know how to use them well."
Bell dismissed the suggestion that the season has been an uphill battle for the Spartans, but the numbers suggest a certain degree of incline. She played 36 minutes against Penn State, a night after she played 38 minutes and led all scorers with 20 points against Michigan.
Only five Spartans have played in every game this season, mostly because of injuries but also because of two early-season suspensions, and the rotation at this point is seven players deep.
Michigan State finished the regular season eighth in scoring offense in the conference and seventh in field goal percentage. It isn't going to win many track meets. It can win some demolition derbies.
Johnson only hit one shot Saturday, albeit a big 3-pointer from the corner late in the second half. Bell didn't hit any a night after scoring 20. But to know why they were smiling after the game, look at the job they did forcing one of the best backcourts in the country away from its preferred path in the middle of the court. Lucas, Alex Bentley and Dara Taylor combined to hit 11 of 43 shots.
All in a day's work.
"Right now, I'm living off the high of the win, so I'm not tired," Johnson said. "It will probably hit me when we get to the hotel, but right now, I'm just so happy I don't even feel my body."
If you try, you'll probably win. That's not really how March works. But it worked for at least a day here.