The final buzzer went off, and moments later Sunday afternoon the championship caps went on.
The scene is getting to be, well, old hat for Purdue.
There were the Boilermakers, proudly donning their championship gear and standing arm-in-arm on the Sears Centre floor in Hoffman Estates celebrating yet another Big Ten women’s basketball tournament title, a decisive 62-47 victory over Michigan State. It was Purdue’s ninth championship in the 19-year history of the tournament, and the 13th time a Purdue team has played in the title game.
What isn’t old hat for Purdue, though, or for any Big Ten team for that matter, is wearing championship caps at the next level.
The big question at the Sears Centre following the title game wasn’t necessarily how Purdue beat Michigan State, but how Purdue could possibly parlay its success at the Big Ten tournament into something much more substantial in the NCAA Tournament. And would other Big Ten teams be able to do the same?
It hasn’t happened very often in the past, certainly not often enough for a power conference of the Big Ten’s caliber.
In fact, there has been only one team in the history of Big Ten women’s basketball to earn the right to wear an NCAA championship cap. That was Purdue in 1999.
Five other league teams have been to Final Fours, but the other pressing issue of the moment is that the Big Ten’s most recent trip to a Final Four was eight long years ago. That’s when Michigan State made it in 2005.
“It’s time we went to work,” said Michigan State coach Suzy Merchant, speaking of the league’s lackluster NCAA record as a whole.
You can sense the frustration among Big Ten coaches that the conference isn’t better represented deep into the NCAA Tournament and at the Final Four on a regular basis. But Purdue coach Sharon Versyp says that’s about to change.
“Our time is coming in the Big Ten,” she said. “I think there’s been a lot of really good change in the last few years. You’ve got a lot of new coaches, a different style of coaching and our recruiting is changing. We’re bringing in a different type of athlete to the Big Ten.
“The Big Ten is more up and down and a lot more explosive. It’s very dynamic now. It’s not what people used to think of when they thought of the Big Ten, and that was slow and sluggish. Now, we’ve got great athletes out there getting up and down the floor and being quick. We are changing the style of the conference and it’s making us better.”
Penn State, averaging a league-leading 74 points per game, is one of those up-tempo teams, and the Big Ten’s top hope for a major NCAA breakthrough this season. The Lady Lions, who lost in the Big Ten semifinals to Michigan State but won the regular-season conference title, have been ranked among the top 10 nationally all season.
“I feel like they have a chance to be a Final Four team, I really do, given the right matchups and the right situations,” Merchant said of Penn State. “That’s one heck of a team. But there are a lot of really good teams in our league, and I think there are a lot of us who will get good opportunities in the NCAA Tournament.”
Penn State likely will get the best shot, by way of seeding.
Versyp thinks Penn State will get a No. 2 seed, and that advancing to a Final Four with a seed any lower is next to impossible.
“There’s always a chance for an upset, but it’s much easier to make a run at a Final Four if you’re a No. 1 or No. 2 seed,” Versyp said. “It’s tough to break through otherwise.”
So on Selection Monday next week, Versyp, Merchant and all the other Big Ten coaches become Penn State fans, rooting for a high seed and favorable path for the Lady Lions. A Penn State breakthrough would be a much-needed breakthrough for the entire conference on the national stage.
“We’re all anxious for that to happen,” Versyp said. “We all just want to climb the mountain.”
And wear a championship hat.
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