Team’s title bid ends at buzzer



By Stuart Lieberman

INDIANAPOLIS – All good things must come to an end. Illinois, the No. 9 seed in the Big Ten Tournament, upset three teams in the first three rounds of the tournament but lost to Purdue 58-56 as the final buzzer went off in the championship game Sunday night.

The game ended like so many others this season.

Tied at 56-56 with 3.1 seconds remaining, Purdue inbounded the ball to forward Lakisha Freeman who rebounded her own miss to sink a jumper as time expired.

“They fought and they gave me everything they have,” head coach Jolette Law said.

“I wanted to defeat all odds. No one expected us to be here. I wanted it so bad for them to cut down the nets and go to the NCAAs. This hurt me more than any other loss than I’ve probably had in my career. I wanted it so much for my young ladies.”

Freeman said she took the first shot and knew it was off but took a second one and stayed with it until it went in.

“Everybody believed in me and that gave me the confidence to believe in myself,” Freeman, who led Purdue with 12 points, said about her last-second shot.

Tears filled the Illinois locker room following the heartbreaking loss.

Although the Illini were the first-ever No. 9 seed to make it to the tournament’s championship game, they were only one shot short of winning their first tournament title and securing an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

“When that basket went in I was like, ‘Please just give us five more minutes,'” Law said.

“‘Let them continue to fight for it.’ But when the basket went in and they said it was good and it was like a pit in my stomach. I wanted it so bad for them. They worked so hard and they were starting to believe.”

Illinois got off to a slow start in the first half, as Purdue went on a 10-2 run in the opening six minutes of the game.

The Illini failed to grab their own rebounds and could not keep up with the pace the Boilermakers were trying to set.

Things started to click for Lacey Simpson, and the rest of the team fed off her and began to come alive.

Simpson’s shot began to fall, Rebecca Harris and Simpson drew fouls and sank their free throws, and Jenna Smith made a shot from behind the arc.

The team tied the game at 12-12 with just less than 10 minutes left in the half and went into the break up 30-28.

Illinois carried its momentum into the second half, as Simpson and Smith led the team in the final minutes of the game, despite both being in foul trouble as the game was winding down.

With 2:55 remaining in the game, Harris made a three-pointer to tie the game at 56-56 to go into what Law calls the “Orange Zone.”

The final two minutes of the game is when Law tells her team it is their time to dictate.

For the first minute of the Orange Zone, the teams traded buckets, but neither team was able to score in the final minute. The two teams traded possessions until Freeman’s shot sank at the end.

“It came down to the last-second shot,” Smith said, who led the team’s effort with 19 points and 12 rebounds.

“We made mistakes, they made mistakes, but when it came down to it they hit the last second shot, and we missed some key box-outs.”

Smith said there was nothing they could do at the end of the game once the shot went in.

The sophomore forward took the loss hard after working so hard throughout the season to have one shot ruin what could have been described as a miracle run for the Illini.

“In our minds we look at it as we lost the championship game,” Smith.

“It’s a big loss, but we take what we got. We made the finals, we made history.”

Harris, a graduating senior, contributed 12 points, while Simpson had 15 points and seven rebounds.

Purdue head coach Sharon Versyp said she was impressed with Illinois’ run.

“(Law) has not to lower her head down at all because those kids played really hard for her,” Versyp said.

Although the team failed to capture an automatic bid, it may still have a shot at postseason play.

Illinois will have to wait it out to see whether it gets a bid to the NCAA Tournament or if it receives an invitation to the WNIT.

“I thought it was going to be an automatic bid, and I was going to look at it on Monday, what I’m accustomed to on (March 17)” Law said. “But now I have no clue.”

Simpson and the rest of the team will now just have to wait and hope for the best.

“Right now we’ll just sit back and see if we’ll make it to the NCAA Tournament,” Simpson said. “If we don’t then we’ll start the process of getting ready for next season.”