"A 750,000-square-foot, 18,300-seat arena would be intimidating to most. But for former Beech Grove High School star Katie Gearlds, Conseco Fieldhouse is just a bigger version of her backyard. Gearlds, a Purdue senior and 2003 Indiana Miss Basketball, will lead her No. 15 Boilermakers into the Big Ten Women’s Basketball Tournament Thursday, March 1-5 at Conseco Fieldhouse in search of the team’s second tournament title since Gearlds’ freshman year, and sixth overall.
“[Conseco Fieldhouse] feels like home. It’s like playing in my backyard,” Gearlds, who lives 10 minutes from downtown Indy, said.
Gearlds said there will be no added pressure to playing the tournament in her home city.
“It will be awesome to see some familiar faces,” she said. “It feels right at home. You look up in the crowd and see familiar faces and it’s your comfort zone. It’s like being in high school and playing in your high school gym.”
Gearlds comes into the 13th annual tournament on a scoring streak reminiscent of her years at Beech Grove where she averaged 30 points per game her senior year. On Sunday, Feb. 18, she dropped a school-record 41 points against Wisconsin in a 69-60 win. She followed the Wisconsin game with 28 points in an easy win over Iowa, 76-52, four days later.
Purdue (25-5, 14-2) will enter the tournament as a favorite to win the championship behind No. 5 and heavily favored Ohio State (26-2, 15-1) led by All-American center Jessica Davenport. No. 20 Michigan State (22-7, 13-3) also is capable of leaving Indianapolis with the championship trophy. The Spartans have already beat Purdue and Ohio State once this season.
Games to watch
The tournament’s most exciting match-up will be in the semifinal round between Purdue and No. 3 seed Michigan State, which will determine who faces the Buckeyes in the championship game, assuming each team doesn’t get upset.
Purdue and Michigan State split their two regular season games, with the visiting team winning both times. (Purdue won 70-60 on Jan. 11; Michigan State won 54-52 on Feb. 11.) Both teams will be hungry to upset and take advantage of an injured Buckeyes team for the tourney title.
In early February against Minnesota, the No. 5 Buckeyes lost second leading scorer Brandie Hoskins for the season to an Achilles tendon injury. MSU already upset the Buckeyes on their home court, Feb. 18, 62-59, to give Ohio State its first conference loss of the season. Purdue lost to the Buckeyes early in the season, but won’t be quick to forget last season’s 63-60 loss to Ohio State in the tournament’s final game.
“We’re taking it one game at a time,” Gearlds said. “You kind of want the best teams in the league to be playing against each other in the championship game ... The perfect scenario would be with us raising up the trophy and cutting down the nets.”
Ohio State has to get past the Fighting Illini to have a shot at a back-to-back tournament title. Illinois has been peaking at the right time with their recent win over Michigan State, 56-46. An upset of the Buckeyes will strengthen their case for an NCAA Tournament seed.
The early round match ups will also be worth the ticket. Only MSU, Purdue and OSU are locks to get into the NCAA Tournament, so the three powerhouses will have the proverbial bull’s-eye on their backs as every low seed delivers their best shot. Don’t be surprised if No. 5, 6 and 7 seeds Minnesota (15-14, 7-9), Penn State (14-15, 7-9) and Wisconsin (18-11, 7-9) make a surprise appearance in the tournament’s semifinal games.
If you attend the games, don’t be surprised if you’re sandwiched among throngs of screaming Indianapolis middle-schoolers. For the 11th time in tournament history, the Big Ten Middle School Curriculum Program will pair over 30 middle schools with a Big Ten team.
The program assigns Big Ten teams to various middle schools throughout the city and incorporates that team into the school’s curriculum. Students crunch statistics in math class, make banners in art class and learn teams’ fight songs in music class under the program. Around 2,500 students are planning to attend the tournament this year, rooting for their assigned team.
Fans looking for something to do on the tournament’s off-day before Sunday’s semifinal games can head to the Big Ten Talk of the Town at the Indianapolis Artsgarden from 2:30-4 p.m.
The event will feature a Q&A and autograph session with players and coaches of the four semifinal teams, along with the appearance of former Big Ten stars from the past 25 years. Ohio State’s Tracey Yarbrough and Katie Smith will be at the event, representing the 1980s and ’90s, while Purdue’s Kelly Komara and Northwestern’s Angelina Williams will represent the Big Ten in the 21st century.
The tournament will continue its family-friendly atmosphere with a free girls basketball clinic for fourth- through eighth-graders at the Finish Line Court in Conseco Fieldhouse on Sunday. Former Indiana Miss Basketball and Purdue star Jennifer Jacoby will run the clinic. Participants will receive a ticket to the semifinal games.
Lastly, the tournament will host a pep rally at the entry pavilion in Conseco an hour before the finals tip-off at 7 p.m. on ESPN2. Don’t miss out on the free hot dogs, face painting and autograph sessions amongst the pre-game hype.
Tickets: Single-session and all-session tickets for the tournament are currently on sale and available at the Conseco Fieldhouse box office, Ticketmaster outlets, www.ticketmaster.com or by calling Ticketmaster at 317-239-5151. The all-session tickets are $65, while single-session prices range from $12-$16. Last year, the attendance average per session was a record-breaking 7,000.
Katie Gearlds High School Career
Scored 2,521 career points, ranking fourth in Indiana history
Led state in scoring as a senior in 2002-’03, averaging 30.1 points per game; also averaged 9.4 rebounds, 5.4 assists and 5.1 steals per game
2003 Indiana Miss Basketball
2003 Gatorade Indiana Player of the Year
2003 Class 3A state champion
2003 McDonald’s and Nike/WBCA All-American
MVP of the 2003 McDonald’s All-American Game, scoring 17 points to lead the West team to victory