MINNEAPOLIS — The final day of a top-notch regular season in the Big Ten featured a last-second 3-pointer by the best player in the league that stopped the first-place team's 14-game winning streak.
If Iowa's victory over Indiana on Caitlin Clark's catch-and-shoot winner from the wing was any indication of the current quality of the competition, the conference tournament in Minneapolis this week will be quite the show.
Boasting three of the top seven teams in the latest Associated Press poll with Indiana (No. 2), Maryland (No. 5) and Iowa (No. 7), the Big Ten is carrying a strong case into March for being the toughest league in the country. While defending champion South Carolina remains the runaway NCAA title favorite, the Hoosiers, Terrapins and Hawkeyes all have legitimate designs on reaching the Final Four in Dallas, too.
“I think it’s going to be one of the better tournaments just because of the parity and the talent that’s in this league this year,” said Indiana coach Teri Moren, whose team produced the program's first regular season title in 40 years.
Ohio State (No. 14) and Michigan (No. 17) are the other two ranked teams that are projected as top-four NCAA Tournament seeds, giving the Big Ten by far the most of any conference.
Michigan tied with Illinois for fifth place. They'll enter the bracket in the second round on Thursday. Indiana, Iowa, Maryland and Ohio State earned the coveted double byes and start in the quarterfinals on Friday at Target Center, which hosted the NCAA Women's Final Four last year.
The Buckeyes, who were ranked as high as second in the AP poll in late January, have lost six of their last 10 games. But they secured their top-four seed with a blowout win at Michigan last week, an encouraging sign for coach Kevin McGuff.
"I think we’ve seen pretty much everything you will see, so hopefully that will give us an advantage heading into March," McGuff said. “Just keep this competitive spirit and fire."
BACKING THE BLACK AND GOLD
Indianapolis hosted 25 of the first 28 editions of the conference tournament, with one stop (2001) in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and two trips (2013, 2015) to suburban Chicago. This two-year commitment to Minneapolis clearly helps the defending Big Ten Tournament champion Hawkeyes, with the Iowa border a two-hour drive from the Twin Cities and the Iowa campus less than five hours away.
Iowa is third in the NCAA in attendance, with an average home crowd of more than 10,700 that set the Big Ten women's record. The Hawkeyes announced a total of 15,056 on Sunday against Indiana.
They'll welcome the extra support for a potential semifinal matchup on Saturday afternoon against Maryland, which handed them their worst loss of the season last week. The Terrapins have won six straight games, including two against Ohio State during the streak.
“Everybody knows your play calls, you know each other’s players by name,” Iowa co-star Monika Czinano said. “It’s truly just a grind there, but it’s so much fun though. There’s so much joy in it, too. Our group has been there.”
WHAT COMES NEXT
The last Big Ten team to reach the national championship game was Michigan State in 2005, though Maryland (2006) and Rutgers (2007) got there in subsequent seasons while they were still in other leagues. Maryland (2014, 2015) is the only team to make the Final Four since then.
“We really need to get a team to the Final Four,” said Megan Kahn, the Big Ten's vice president of women's basketball. “I think that’s our next step, to continue to garner that national level of respect in how strong our league is.”
HOSTS WITH THE MOST?
Fledgling Minnesota finished the regular season just 11-18 and has the No. 12 seed, pitted against No. 13 seed Penn State to tip off the tournament on Wednesday afternoon. No. 14 seed Northwestern plays No. 11 seed Rutgers in the other first-round game.
The Gophers, whose top six scorers are all freshmen or sophomores, have shown some signs of progress lately with their young lineup. They beat Nebraska and Purdue in their final two home games, both NCAA Tournament bubble teams.
“I feel good, and I think they feel good, and they should,” coach Lindsay Whalen said. “We’re starting to see, when we continue to pour into each other, they have a chance to be a really special group.”
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