EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Michigan State moved a step closer toward winning the Big Ten title outright for the first time, beating Northwestern 74-60 on Thursday night.
Then, Ohio State helped out by beating second-place Penn State.
The Spartans (No. 10 ESPN/USA Today, No. 11 AP) have a 1½-game lead in the conference with just three games left in the regular season.
"It's something that you definitely want to achieve," coach Suzy Merchant said.
Michigan State's Lykendra Johnson had 19 points, Kalisha Keane scored 17 and Taylor Alton added 13.
The Spartans (23-3, 11-2 Big Ten) have put themselves in a position to finish the regular season alone in first place after sharing the Big Ten championship in 1997 and 2005.
If the Spartans win Sunday at Illinois, they will clinch at least a share of the conference championship and will be the top-seeded team at the Big Ten tournament because they have the tiebreaker edge over the Nittany Lions and third-place Wisconsin.
"We'll have our hands full at Illinois -- whatever ends up being at stake," Merchant said.
Amy Jaeschke gave Michigan State more than it could handle in the first half, scoring 16 points to help the Wildcats lead 36-33. But the Spartans made adjustments, deciding to make her work harder without the ball with physical defense and to front the 6-foot-5 senior in the post.
"The difference was our defense in the second half," Merchant said. "We did a much better job on Jaeschke."
Jaeschke finished with 25 points and Brittany Orban added 11 for the Wildcats (16-11, 5-9).
Northwestern, which has lost three straight games and seven of nine, overcame a slow start well enough to be in a closely contested game with 15 ties and 16 lead changes. The Wildcats, though, were outscored 14-2 over the final 3½ minutes.
"We had tremendous opportunities and we let them slip away," coach Joe McKeown said. "It came down to offensive rebounds."
Northwestern held the Spartans to 39 percent shooting but gave up 23 offensive rebounds that led to 13 second-chance points.
"We did everything we wanted to other than not giving them second shots," McKeown said. "Give them credit, but I'm really disappointed with the way we finished."