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Poor shooting costs Spartans in Big Ten final loss

David Goricki
The Detroit News

Indianapolis — The Spartans picked the wrong time to have their top players all have bad shooting nights.

Michigan State entered the Big Ten women’s basketball tournament championship game Sunday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in search of what Maryland owns, bragging rights in the conference and a Final Four resume on the national scene.

The No. 19-ranked Spartans (24-8) — looking for their first Big Ten tourney title since 2005 and hoping to gain momentum heading in the NCAA Tournament — played a solid first-half before losing the lead in the third quarter and ultimately the game to the top-seeded Terrapins, 60-44.

No. 5 Maryland (30-3) successfully defended its Big Ten tournament title, dominating Michigan State in the second half after trailing 26-24 at halftime. Now, the Terrapins will look for a top seed and try to advance to their third straight Final Four.

Maryland didn’t go unbeaten during the conference season like a year ago, its first in the Big Ten. The Terrapins were 16-2 with their lone losses coming at the hands of Ohio State, a team MSU dominated in a semifinal Saturday, 82-63, in perhaps its best game of the season.

But Ohio State didn’t have the size or shooting touch of Maryland, which leads the nation in rebounding margin (plus-15.7) and is second nationally in field goal percentage (.503) and 3-point shooting (.409).

The Spartans’ top three scorers — Aerial Powers (22.3 points), Tori Jankoska (15.5) and Branndais Agee (11.9) — all struggled. Powers scored eight (3-of-12 shooting), Jankoska had 12 (4-of-15) and Agee, two (0-for-9).

“We just weren’t ourselves,” MSU coach Suzy Merchant said. “I felt a couple of them were out of sorts. It was disappointing. You want to beat a championship team in a championship game, everybody’s got to show up. You can’t have people struggle as badly as they did.

“I thought our defense was effective (in first half) and we did some really good things. Second half, we just stopped playing, stopped competing. As soon as a couple shots didn’t fall, we’d travel here or there, had some turnovers that were ridiculous, absolutely ridiculous, just made it hard to get over the hump.”

All-Big Ten first-team guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough had 19 points and 10 rebounds for Maryland. She was named tournament MVP and earned it, keeping the Terrapins close in the first half while her teammates struggled against MSU’s zone.

In the second half, Maryland limited MSU to 25 percent shooting (6-of-24). The Spartans missed all nine 3-pointers and were outrebounded by a 24-13 margin during the final two quarters, 11-5 on the offensive end.

“In the first half we kept them off the boards and that was the No. 1 key to the game,” Merchant said. “We didn’t get worn down (in the second half), we stopped competing and (6-foot-2 Tierney) Pfirman (12 rebounds) out-hustled and out-worked us and that’s disappointing.

“I think the disappointing thing, I felt like a couple kids on the team were just struggling to like be passionate and compete and be excited to make up for a mistake.”

MSU played a solid first quarter and led 14-12. Missed inside shots by backup post players Kennedy Johnson and Jenna Allen hurt, both coming near the end of a quarter where it had limited Maryland to 28 percent shooting.

Powers picked up her second foul less than a minute into the second quarter and was forced to watch the rest of the half while the Spartans’ zone continued to frustrate the Terrapins.

Powers started the third quarter fresh, but she continued to struggle, turning the ball over while trying to force passes inside and missing shots.

The Terrapins used an 11-0 run to open up a 38-30 lead, and just kept pulling away.