By MICHAEL MAROT
AP Sports Writer
INDIANAPOLIS -- All Purdue's Lakisha Freeman needed Sunday was a second chance.
A second look confirmed what her teammates already knew: Purdue was headed back to the NCAA tournament.
After missing a potential game-winning 15-footer with less than 3 seconds left, the junior forward slithered past Illinois defenders, grabbed her own rebound and barely beat the buzzer with a 10-foot jumper to give the Boilermakers a 58-56 victory in the Big Ten title game.
"After the shot, I saw it was going off. I saw that she didn't box me out, so I followed my shot. I had a little time, so I just got the shot up," she said, before describing the team's emotions as officials reviewed the play. "My teammates, they were excited, they said they knew for sure it was good."
The officials agreed after the replay showed the shot left Freeman's hands with 0.3 seconds on the clock, and when the ruling was finally announced at Conseco Fieldhouse, the Boilermakers celebrated by diving onto the floor, hugging and dancing at midcourt.
Who could blame them?
Purdue (18-14) came into the tournament needing a second straight championship run to make its 15th consecutive NCAA tournament appearance. By clinching the conference's automatic bid, the nation's fifth-longest streak remains intact.
There were times throughout the weekend when it didn't seem possible, but Freeman's nimbleness and quick release erased all doubts.
"We just set up a play that we could get it to Kiki, and if they overplayed her, we were going to try to get it to Danielle (Campbell)," said point guard FahKara Malone, the tournament's most outstanding player. "Kiki got open for us and got the shot off, and was lucky enough to be able to follow it."
It was a fitting end to an unpredictable tournament, which was marred by poor shooting, sloppy play and improbable outcomes. The Big Ten regular-season co-champs, Ohio State and Iowa, were knocked out in the quarterfinals and semifinals, respectively, and games on Friday and Saturday produced two of the three lowest combined scores in tourney history.
Then there was the Fighting Illini's run. They were the lowest-seeded team, No. 9, to ever reach the Big Ten title game and came within a whisker of matching the 1997 Auburn Tigers as the lowest seed from any Bowl Championship Series conference to win a tournament title.
Thanks to Freeman, who led Purdue with 12 points, Auburn still holds that distinction. Kalika France added 11 points, while Campbell and Keshia Mosley each finished with 10 for Purdue.
Illinois (19-14) was also trying to become the first Big Ten school to win four games in four consecutive days but eventually wore down. It failed to score in the final 2:55 and now must wait another week to see if the NCAA tournament selection committee will reward it with an at-large bid.
"I wanted so bad for them to get to the NCAAs, to make history, to just see it, just taste it," first-year Illini coach Jolette Law said. "I just said 'Give them five more minutes to fight,' but they said the shot went in."
The Illini were led by Jenna Smith with 19 points and 12 rebounds and Lacey Simpson, who had 15 points.
But if they were fatigued, they certainly didn't show it. Law only made two substitutions in the first half and four of her starters logged 39 or 40 minutes.
Yet Illinois led 30-28 at halftime, extended the lead to 37-32 early in the second half and still led 48-43 with 9:02 to go.
"In a championship game, you don't worry about that," Simpson said.
Things changed in the frantic final minutes, though.
France hit a 3-pointer and Campbell made two free throws to tie the score at 48. Then Malone's steal and layup sparked an 8-0 run that gave Purdue a 56-50 lead with 4:18 left.
The Illini rallied again with Smith and Rebecca Harris hitting back-to-back 3s to tie the score at 56 with 2:55 to go before the teams traded errant shots. Mosley missed in the post for Purdue and Smith missed a layup with 29 seconds to go for Illinois.
After Purdue called timeout, Malone drove to the basket where Smith blocked it out of bounds. The Boilermakers again called timeout to set up the play for Freeman, even if it didn't go exactly according to script.
"Everybody believed in me and that gave me the confidence to believe in myself," Freeman said. "They told me to get open. My post set some good screens for me and I had all the confidence in the world."