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Women’s Big Ten basketball hits conference play

NCAA Womens Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Maryland vs Michigan State
Michigan State Spartans head coach Suzy Merchant works the bench against the Maryland Terrapins in the first half during the women's Big Ten Conference Tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Maryland won 100-89.
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Non-conference games have come and gone, and the women in the Big Ten are ready to duke it out as conference play gets underway this week.

Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Rutgers were off this past week, while the remaining 11 teams played at least one game. The Michigan State (10-3) women’s squad were one of three teams to play twice, winning both of its games to win the New Orleans Shootout taking down No. 25 South Florida, 83-73, and Mississippi Valley, 83-64, while Northwestern and Nebraska each split its two contests. It was the Spartans’ first win against a Top 25 opponent.

In the opening game against South Florida, sophomore guard Shay Colley posted a career-high 27 points shooting 9-for-16 from the field with four assists. Colley, a transfer from South Carolina and Pittsburgh, only scored three points in the final game in New Orleans but did pick up eight assists. Junior forward Jenna Allen scored 17 points and 18 points in the Spartans’ two wins last week to improve her scoring average to a team-high 11.3 points per contest this season.

Iowa, Maryland, Minnesota, Purdue, Indiana, and Michigan each won its lone games of the week.

Iowa was led by its Player of the Year candidate Megan Gustafson and Makenzie Meyer. Gustafson posted her 12th double-double of the season — tied for the NCAA lead — with 27 points and 12 rebounds, while Meyer dropped 21. Gustafson’s 22.2 points per game this season ranks second in the Big Ten behind Ohio State’s Kelsey Mitchell and seventh in the entire NCAA.

Maryland won its ninth victory in a row with Eleanna Christinaki’s hot hand shooting 12-for-20 from the field including 6-for-13 from beyond the arc to score 32 points off the bench.

Minnesota’s Kenisha Bell also dropped 30 points in the Golden Gophers’ 101-75 blowout win against UC-Riverside and nearly recorded a double-double with nine assists.

Michigan’s Katelynn Flaherty continued her stellar senior season with her ninth 20-point game this season in Thursday’s rout of Delaware State, 105-36. Her 22-point performance improved her scoring average to 21.9 — third in the conference this year.

This week, each Big Ten team will kick off league play with two conference games apiece. All 14 teams sit at .500 or above this season with seven teams at the 10-win mark. The biggest surprise might be Rutgers (12-2), who is tied for the Big Ten-best 12 wins with Iowa. Last season, the Scarlet Knights had just six wins — the fewest wins of the C. Vivian Stringer era. No. 21 Michigan and No. 23 Iowa on Sunday, Dec. 31 will be the lone Top 25 matchup this week in conference play, but two teams knocking on the door of the Top 25 will also be in action and that’s Michigan State and Rutgers, who’ve each received votes in the poll.

The conference’s two highest-ranked teams — Ohio State and Maryland — each play middling Big Ten teams. Maryland takes on Illinois (9-5) and Penn State (9-4), while Ohio State plays Nebraska (9-4) and Indiana (7-6).