Purdue 91, Pacific 57
The Purdue Boilermakers played their 2002-03 home opener November 24 against Pacific of the Big West Conference. The Tigers represented a step up from the Boilers’ first opponent of the young season, Wisconsin-Milwaukee, but are still a far cry from such future pre-conference opponents as Vanderbilt and Notre Dame. A game featuring mismatched squads can be difficult to sit through unless there is some reason to watch besides the wait to learn the final score. For the Purdue faithful, Sunday’s contest provided the first “real” opportunity to watch the six Boiler freshmen in action. The fans were not disappointed. Because the outcome was all but decided in the first ten minutes, each player wearing a home uniform received ample opportunity to showcase her skills.
Although coach Kristy Curry can call on plenty of newcomers, each of the starters she sent out Sunday is either a junior or a senior. The veterans quickly established themselves as superior defenders and capable scorers. Pacific played a zone whenever Purdue had the ball. At times, the Boilers seemed stymied by this defense, and had some difficulty moving the ball effectively against it. What bodes extremely well for Purdue’s future, especially this early in the season, is that the Vegas Gold and Black did not appear to become impatient or rush things when its first attempt to score was unsuccessful. The hosts’ defensive intensity was at a high level from the opening tip, and the Boilers put the game out of reach by holding the Tigers scoreless for an 11-minute stretch. At halftime, Purdue went into the locker room with a 51-19 advantage.
The aforementioned defensive intensity sagged a bit in the second half, due to the joint effects of the wide margin on the scoreboard and the large number of player combinations employed on the floor. Most of the period was devoted to giving extended minutes to the freshmen. One tandem that proved particularly successful was the backcourt pairing of “Shereka Senior” and “Sharika Junior”. Veteran Wright found rookie Webb releasing on the defensive end for two quick breakaway baskets. Webb then returned one of the favors by hitting Wright for an easy deuce. The final score was 91-57.
Comments on Specific Aspects of the Game
On the afternoon, Purdue shot 42% from the field, including 36% from behind the three-point arc. Although the Boilers appeared to be stymied by the zone defense at times, they usually exhibited the patience required to finally find the open shot. This edition of the team appears to be most comfortable in a transition game, scoring off of turnovers and similar opportunities.
The Boilers played in a zone for much of the contest. They worked on their presses to some degree, but perhaps Curry decided it just wasn’t sporting to work too vigorously on full-court defenses when her team was up by thirty points. In several instances, Purdue ran a very nifty play in which the power forward would front the Tiger who was trying to inbound the ball. If jumping up and down and blocking the opponent’s vision didn’t prevent the ball from being put into play, the power forward would immediately join a Boiler guard in trapping the person who had received the pass. Particularly effective when Sabrina Keys was in at the “4” for Purdue, this stratagem didn’t produce many turnovers, but did usually disrupt Pacific and take several seconds off the shot clock. For the game, the visitors shot at a 37% clip from the field, including a success rate of 40% from behind the arc. A more telling indication of the effectiveness of Purdue’s defense was the fact that the Tigers only attempted 59 shots to the hosts’ 72. Pacific committed 27 turnovers, 14 of which were credited as Purdue steals.
Rebounding was a point of emphasis for the Boilers in the off-season. If the first two games are any indication, the team’s performance in this area will be much improved over last year’s effort. Purdue won the war of the boards by a count of 49-37. Of the hosts’ rebounds, an impressive 21 were grabbed off the offensive glass. Wright pulled down a game-high 10 caroms, while Mary Jo Noon and Carol Duncan each collared seven. No Tiger had more than six.
Free-throw shooting was right up there next to rebounding in the “off-season point of emphasis” department. Purdue’s performance from the charity stripe last season was average at best, and Curry has been vocal about wanting to improve in this area. So far, so good. The Boilers hit 23 of their 30 foul-shot attempts (77%). Beth Jones and Erika Valek were perfect from the stripe as each went 2-for-2 there.
Perhaps the areas in which the Boilers have made their largest strides since last season have been their ability to make decisions as a team and each individual’s skill at working within the offense. On Sunday, Purdue recorded 22 assists to 16 turnovers. Excellent at any time, this performance is downright remarkable when it is posted in the second game of the season, and 76 of the 200 available minutes are claimed by true freshmen. Valek had a game-high six assists for the Boilers.
Shereka Wright’s most impressive play occurred before the opening tip-off. During player introductions, Wright was able to throw a T-shirt directly to her mother, who was sitting halfway up the stands. When Shereka’s basketball eligibility expires, perhaps she can be talked into playing center field for the Purdue softball team. Wright appears to have her own private point of emphasis – namely, shooting jump shots. She took several, some in instances when lanes to the basket appeared to be open. Hopefully, Shereka’s confidence in (and consequent willingness to employ) her outside shot will increase as more and more of her long-range attempts find the hoop. One gets the impression that Wright could have scored at will, but was content to play a supporting role most of the time, helping her younger teammates get into the flow of the game. Shereka continues to excel on the defensive end. In one notable sequence, a Pacific player found herself all alone on the Tigers’ offensive end of the court after a Purdue turnover. The woman in orange and black appeared to be excited by the opportunity to take an easy, uncontested shot. In the time it took the Tiger to set up, Shereka closed the distance between the mid-court line and the shooter before decisively blocking the attempt out of bounds. Shereka tends to accumulate All-American stats almost in spite of herself, and Sunday afternoon provided no exception to this rule. In 28 minutes of play, Wright recorded 15 points (4-of-14 field-goal attempts, 2-of-6 three-point tries, 5-of-6 free-throw attempts). She added 10 rebounds (for her second consecutive double-double of the young season), 4 assists, 3 steals, 2 blocked shots, and 1 turnover.
Mary Jo Noon had an extremely quiet 16 points. She seemed to be forcing things offensively, perhaps because she appears to be working on increasing her range. Mary Jo attempted several action shots from the high block, and quite a few from the free-throw line as well. When she did decide to set up down low, no Pacific player could prevent Noon from establishing position, and she was able to draw the foul and/or finish. On the afternoon, Mary Jo hit 4 of her 10 FG attempts and 8 of her 9 charity tosses. She also contributed 7 rebounds, 2 assists, and a block while committing one turnover.
Lindsey Hicks had a rather up-and-down game – she would be the dominant player on the court; only to disappear and become a non-factor for a frustratingly long stretch. Overall, however, Lindsey’s improvement from last season is remarkable. No doubt Pacific’s scouting report included a note that Hicks is a good three-point shooter, but opponents still appear extremely surprised when she nails her outside shots. Perhaps the best part of Lindsey’s game, however, is her entry passes. From the top of the key, she is able to thread a soft, floating pass through a swarm of defenders to an open Boiler on the baseline. Hicks finished with 11 points (5-of-8 FG, 1-of-2 attempted treys). In her 23 minutes, she also collected 2 rebounds, 5 assists, 1 block, 2 steals, and zero turnovers.
Although Erika Valek never seemed particularly slow last season, her speed has improved to the point that it cannot really be compared to what she displayed as a sophomore. Erika has used her greatly increased mobility to help her become a defensive nightmare. She is able to hound ball handlers, zip back and forth as the opposing team passes the pleather, and get out on three-point shooters. For her efforts, she was rewarded with three steals on the afternoon. Erika’s shooting has come back down from the stratosphere, and she seemed to be forcing things somewhat at the beginning of the contest. Yet the longer she was on the court, the better she looked. Another large improvement Erika has made has been in her ability to drive and dish around the basket. She did very well in recognizing when she was drawing a double team, and responding by passing to the open shooter. When she realized she was being played to pass, Erika would pull up to nail a silky smooth jump shot. To her 3 steals, Valek added 6 points (2-of-9 FG, 0-of-4 treys, 2-of-2 FT), 3 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 steals, a blocked shot, and 3 turnovers.
Beth Jones improved quite a bit from her freshman to her sophomore year, but that progress pales in comparison to the quantum leap she’s taken as a junior. She has always been a shooter, but she is now going after her shot rather than passively waiting to be found on the wing. During Sunday’s game, Beth was frequently run off a screen so that she had an open shot in the free-throw circle, and connected each time. Of course, Jones also hides out on the wing, and will shoot the three if she’s not covered well. More remarkable than Beth’s scoring has been the improvement in other facets of her game. Her ball handling has improved, and she is much more aggressive down low, as well as on the defensive end. To top it off, Jones plays extremely hard, and with great intensity, every second that she’s on the court. Beth now looks to be every bit a starter, not merely an upperclassman keeping a spot warm until a more talented freshman takes over. One hopes that the remainder of the season will see Beth continue to record the kind of line that she’s generated in each of her first two games as a junior. In 27 minutes of play, Beth scored a game-high 18 points (6-of-11 FG, 4-of-7 treys, 2-of-2 FT. She added 5 rebounds, 2 assists, and 1 turnover.
Shortly after going into the game for the first time, Emily Heikes scored on a nice mid-range jumper. On Pacific’s ensuing possession, Emily set up defensively on the low block. As Heikes stood motionless, a Tiger crashed into the sophomore and knocked her to the ground. Emily hit the floor hard, and remained down for a while. She was led off the court, and the training staff spent several minutes cleaning up the blood that had spilled as a result of the crash. Before halftime, Emily returned to the sidelines -- wearing Hannah Anderson’s jersey. Subsequently, Heikes made a few short appearances, but seemed (understandably enough) out of sorts. It was reported later that she suffered a deep cut and a fracture to her nose. She will not miss any games (as a coach once told me, “You don’t run on your nose!”), but will need to wear a protective mask. In 5 minutes of play, Emily scored two points (1-of-2 FG) and pulled down a rebound.
By the midpoint of the first half, Carol Duncan had become a huge fan favorite. It’s impossible not to appreciate the intangibles -- and tangibles – the freshman brings to the game. First, and perhaps foremost, she gives the impression that she is having the time of her life competing on the court. And she sure does compete. In her 17 minutes, Carol grabbed 7 rebounds, including 3 on the offensive end. One can tell that Duncan was an excellent high school volleyball player, as she can “pass” the basketball to herself by tipping it up in the air if she can’t grab it right away, and has the timing needed to snatch a stray shot out of the air before other players have left the ground. The plays that won the crowd’s collective heart, however, were her steals. On each of two occasions, a Tiger grabbed a rebound and began looking up court to make an outlet pass, only to have Carol come in from behind, pounce on the ball, and refuse to let go. In addition to her 7 rebounds and 2 steals, Duncan had 6 points (2-of-2 FG, 2-of-4 FT), a blocked shot, and a turnover.
When the coaches talk about Sharika Webb, they almost bubble over with enthusiasm, and it’s easy to see why. She is already playing the point position with poise and authority. Sharika sees the floor extremely well, and can rifle a pass half the length of the court to hit a cutter and allow the teammate to score without breaking stride. Webb shoots three-pointers at the right times, and connects on most of them. She is fast enough to be able to defend zippy little point guards, as well as sufficiently solid to hold her own against larger, more physical backcourt players. And – praise the Lord –Webb makes her free throws. Her handle was tested repeatedly by the physical Pacific guards. Starting point Corrine Wong rode Sharika like a pony all game, and Webb hardly ever turned the ball over, or even appeared to get frustrated with the rough initiation into Division I hoops she was receiving. One given to quibbling might point out that “Sharika Jr.” had a bit more trouble than Valek in initiating an offense against the zone. Also, Webb telegraphs the times she’s going to the hole (a sure recipe for being called for charging). In 23 minutes of play, Sharika recorded 9 points (3-of-4 FG, 3-of-4 FT), 4 rebounds, 2 assists, and 2 steals to 5 turnovers.
Missy Taylor looked increasingly comfortable the longer she stayed on the court. She began the game on the perimeter almost exclusively, but as time went on, she came closer and closer to the low block to contest rebounds. Her passing ability is unmistakable. She made excellent cuts, and got off some good shots. As is often the case with freshmen, not as many of her attempts went through the hoop as did in high school. Everyone in Mackey could see Missy’s “up side”, and it will be fun to chart her progress as she becomes more comfortable within the system. In 16 minutes’ play, Taylor scored 6 points (2-of-8 FG, 1-of-2 treys, 1-of-2 FT), pulled down 4 rebounds, blocked a shot, recorded an assist, and committed 2 turnovers.
Sabrina Keys began her Mackey career in a manner atypical of first-year collegians. Most young players look to score and otherwise concentrate on offense, with defensive prowess not clicking in until later in their careers. Sabrina had trouble when Purdue had possession, but played exceptional post defense. She was mobile in the paint -- cutting off angles, providing help, and fronting penetrating guards, but then recovering back to her own player quickly enough to prevent the Tiger from making an uncontested shot. Sabrina has three-point range, and one of her two shot attempts (both unsuccessful) was from behind the arc. The other was launched from the top of the key. In 12 minutes of play, Keys did pull down 2 rebounds and record 2 steals.
It is somewhat surprising that Sunday’s box score only credits Ashley Mays with 5 minutes, as it seemed as if she played for a longer period of time. It appears as if Ashley’s mind and body aren’t always on the same page, and that this lack of synchronization has resulted in more turnovers and missed shots than the freshman would like. Mays would appear to get visibly frustrated when something didn’t go her way, but -- to her credit -- she’d buckle down and get back into the flow of the game. Ashley has the side-to-side mobility that will allow her to be a superior defender. In her five minutes, Mays had 2 points (1-of-2 FG), a rebound, and two turnovers.
The final newcomer, walk-on Brianna Howard, saw action for the final three minutes. She did not look as comfortable on the court as did some of her other teammates, but Brianna certainly seems to be anyone’s equal athletically. She missed her only shot, a free-throw attempt.
An unwritten pact exists between some players and coaches. The coach’s half of the contract states that he or she will design sets that allow players to take relatively uncontested shots. The athletes, in turn, are expected to score by finishing those shots the coach has manufactured for them. Kristy Curry and Beth Jones appear to have negotiated such an understanding. The Boilers ran some screen plays, and other sets, that allowed Beth to get off easy shots. Last season, this kind of thing was done very sparingly -- perhaps because the set plays that Curry designed generally saw the designated shooter fail to connect. The coach also seems to be allotting more court time to the end of the bench than she has in the past, perhaps because there are now reserves who are ready to take advantage of the minutes they receive. There is undoubtedly ample room for improvement, but Curry has to be happy with what the team has shown her so far.
Officials have little trouble during games that are not particularly physical and that are played at a relatively slow pace. Such was the case with Sunday’s contest, and the crew did a good job on the afternoon. Although there did not seem to be an appreciable homer bias as I watched the game, the Tigers were whistled for 26 fouls to the 16 charged to Boilers.
Of the 7906 fans announced as being on hand, approximately 40 constituted the still-embryonic Gold Mine cheering section. Easily recognizable in their gold T-shirts, these Purdue students made up in enthusiasm what they lacked in absolute numbers, and promise to be a very nice addition to the Mackey Arena atmosphere.
It can be extremely difficult to predict how well a club will compete against teams that are as skilled as it is by watching said club play lesser opponents. But indications so far are good for the 2002-03 Boilers – the play did not degenerate into a slopfest even at the end of the game, the assists are greatly outnumbering the turnovers, and the team is succeeding at both free throws and rebounding. Before the going gets tougher, things should get even easier for the Boilers when they host Savannah State on Thanksgiving Day.
Game Ball: Beth Jones