;INDIANAPOLIS – When coach Pam Borton said the women’s basketball Big Ten Tournament was wide open, she might have been more accurate than even she could have imagined.
With five upsets in the first nine games of the tournament, the championship now holds ninth-seeded Illinois facing against No. 3 Purdue – a matchup few would have predicted.
Another rare prediction would have been Minnesota falling out of the tournament in the first round, but the Gophers did just that, losing to Michigan State for the first time this season, 56-51.
Minnesota was the third higher-ranked team to fall in its half of the bracket, as not a single team held their seed, sending Illinois into the championship game.
Earlier in the week, Borton talked about the importance of having a third scorer on the court, but as the game began, it became apparent that the Gophers would need to find their top two scorers first.
With junior guard Emily Fox and senior forward Leslie Knight receiving an enormous amount of attention from a defensive-minded Michigan State team, Minnesota was forced to look for other options.
“I don’t know if we’ve ever been more prepared for a game than this one,” Spartans coach Suzy Merchant said. “We’ve struggled in the past to defend this group, but I think we did a great job this time on three kids in particular.”
With Fox, Knight and sophomore center Ashley Ellis-Milan shooting a combined 0-10 from the floor, the Gophers had to look for help, and got it from the three lowest-scoring regular players on the team.
Junior guard Kay Silva, sophomore center Zoe Harper and sophomore guard Brittany McCoy scored six, five and four points, respectively in the first half, keeping Minnesota tied with the Spartans at halftime, 23-23.
But the Gophers still missed capitalizing on a big opportunity in the first half, as Minnesota successfully went after Michigan State’s leading scorer, sophomore center Allyssa DeHaan, and sent her to the bench with two fouls just 2:49 into the game.
“When I sat her down, I was like ‘uh-oh,’ ” Merchant said.
But the Gophers failed to make a run with DeHaan out of commission, allowing Michigan State to protect her from more first-half fouls by leaving her on the bench until halftime.
“We didn’t pull away, the score was close all the way through the first half,” Borton said. “If we would have made a run I think they would have had to bring her back into the game, and I don’t think we did that.”
DeHaan made Minnesota pay for that mistake, coming onto the floor in the second half fresh to score 12 points, including four points in the final four minutes, helping to erase the Gophers’ six-point lead.
The Spartans finished the game strong, while Minnesota faded away in the final two minutes. The Gophers had a chance to tie with 14 seconds left, but missed, allowing Michigan State to seal a 56-51 victory.
Harper led Minnesota with 11 points, while McCoy added eight, being the only one of the Gophers to successfully create dribble-penetration. Silva scored eight as well, but Minnesota shot just 26 percent from the field as a team.
“I think for at least today and tomorrow it’s a good thing to be mad,” Knight said after the game. “I don’t think it’s a good thing after a game like this to just brush it off right away. Give it a couple of days and get back to work, but keep this loss in the back of our minds to keep us hungry.”