by Thomas Wheat Hotchkiss
IU Super Bowl Student News Bureau
INDIANAPOLIS— Out of the timeout, Courtney Moses was smiling. Brittany Rayburn was confident. Perhaps they shouldn’t have been.
After all, Penn State had erased a five-point deficit in the final minute to tie the game at 66 with just 16 seconds left in regulation. Purdue led for most of the game, but the top-seeded Nittany Lions drew even. A trip to the Big Ten Women’s Tournament title game was on the line and the conference champs were one stop away from forcing overtime.
“We didn’t want it to go into overtime,” Rayburn said. “I think Coach drew up a perfect play for us.”
Rayburn took a pass from Chantel Poston on the left wing and drove along the baseline. 6-foot-4 Penn State center Nikki Greene stepped up to block the Rayburn’s path, but the Boilermaker senior guard wasn’t going to be denied. She got the ball up and over Greene’s outstretched arms, off the glass and into the basket for the game-winner with 1.4 seconds left.
“I knew the refs aren’t going to decide the game at the end of the game,” Rayburn said after the game. “Regardless of who was there I had to finish.”
“I thought we did a good job defensively. And I just think Brittany Rayburn made a better shot,” said Penn State head coach Coquese Washington. “I think Nikki might have even tipped it a little bit.”
Rayburn’s shot spoiled the Nittany Lions’ last-second comeback bid.
Down by five, Maggie Lucas penetrated the Purdue defense and found Greene for a bucket plus a foul with 43 seconds on the clock. After Greene knocked down the free throw, Moses slipped among the Penn State pressure and lost the ball out of bounds. Lucas again found Greene for a basket in the paint to tie the game.
Penn State made their final charge without junior guard Alex Bentley, who fouled out in the final minute with a game-high 22 points. Bentley huddled her teammates before she headed their bench to give them encouragement.
“I told them they got it,” Bentley said after the game. “I knew that my teammates were going to pull out something crazy. And I knew — I believed we were still going to win it.”
But it was the Boilermakers who prevailed, thanks to a balanced attack. Each time they looked in trouble a different player stepped up.
With Rayburn and starting forward Sam Ostarello sidelined with foul trouble for much of the first half, senior Antionette Howard scored seven points and pulled down nine rebounds. She finished the game with 13 and 13, her first career double-double.
“[Howard] didn’t play as many minutes yesterday. So she had great legs today,” said Purdue coach Sharon Versyp. “I think her offensive boards were the big difference.”
When Bentley scored to cut the Purdue lead to two midway through the second half, it was Moses who took over. The junior guard scored the Boilermakers’ next nine points to help maintain the lead. Moses finished with a team-high 21 in the scoring column.
And in the final minutes it was Rayburn, scoring the final six Purdue points including the game-winner. 12 of her 14 points came in the second half.
The Boilermakers will meet sixth-seeded Nebraska tomorrow in the championship game. The Cornhuskers upset second seed Ohio State 77-62 in the first semifinal Friday.
The only previous meeting between Purdue and Nebraska this season went to three overtimes before Nebraska finally prevailed, 93-89, on Feb. 2 in West Lafayette.
“They gave us everything, and we played an exceptional game,” Versyp said of the triple-overtime thriller.
For seniors like Rayburn, tomorrow’s title game is one final chance to win an elusive crown. The Boilermakers have captured a Big Ten-record seven conference tournaments, but haven’t won the event since 2008.
“This is your goal when you come in as a freshman, win Big Ten titles. “I think it’s something that we’ve worked extremely hard for, and it would be a great win in our season going into the NCAA.”