Duel in the Dome: Purdue 53, Indiana 51
Here’s something to try the next time you come across a women’s basketball “playa hata”. You know the type – the guy doesn’t hesitate to tell you that the women’s game is slow, inept, sloppy, and played by athletes who would be crushed by a typical boys’ eighth grade “A” team having a bad night. Clip the box scores from 10 random college games, 5 played by women and 5 played by men. Cross out names and any other identifiers that might give the answer away, then see if the teams can be separated on the basis of the sex of the players involved. Here’s a hint – it can’t be done. The difference between men’s college hoops and the corresponding women’s game is one of style, not substance.
This point was hammered home Saturday when the Purdue University and Indiana University women took the RCA Dome court at 5:30 p.m., finished their thriller by 7:15, then gave way to their male counterparts. In each end of the doubleheader, an undefeated Top 10 team was matched against an unranked opponent that was considered to have little chance of competing. Yet in both instances, the underdog – relying on great defense and the incentive inherent in playing an archrival – managed to turn the game into a dogfight that wasn’t decided until the final seconds. Even the scores were eerily similar. At the first media timeout of the opener, Indiana had a 6-5 lead. At the corresponding juncture of the nightcap, the Hoosier men enjoyed a 7-5 advantage. The respective halftime scores were 27-all and Boilers 29, IU 27. Although the games appeared extremely similar “on paper”, however, they looked completely different.
The tone of the women’s contest was set in the first minute of play. IU was able to dominate tempo and turn the game into a grind-it-out, half-court affair. Kathi Bennett’s charges milked the shot clock methodically on one end of the court, then got back and forced Purdue to work against a prickly match-up zone on the other. The result was classic “Bennett ball” – low-scoring, ugly, and frustrating for the opponents. The first Purdue points were scored at the 18:15 mark. Five minutes later, the Boilers were on the short end of a 9-8 count. The Hoosiers, conceding the shot from the high block, were leaving Lindsey Hicks alone at the top of the key. Unfortunately, the junior forward wasn’t able to take advantage of her opportunities. Stymied by the lack of offense, Purdue began to lose defensive intensity, and the Hoosiers – particularly Lisa Eckart -- scored when the Boilers’ concentration flagged. When an uncontested three-point shot widened IU’s advantage to 21-14 with 7:46 left before halftime, Kristy Curry had seen enough, and called a timeout. The Purdue coach must have told her troops to get the ball to Shereka Wright, who scored shortly thereafter. The team from West Lafayette soon slipped back into its lethargic ways, however, and found itself on the short end of a 27-16 count by the 4:40 mark. At that point, the players in Vegas gold “snapped out of it”. Thanks to excellent defense and effective offense, the “visitors” erased the deficit while holding the “host” Hoosiers scoreless for the remainder of the period. In the final seconds, Shereka called a “clear out” for herself before putting up a floater from the middle of the key that knotted the score at 27-27 as the first half ended.
During the intermission, the officials must have been reminded that they hadn’t yet met their monthly quota for infractions called. In the next breath, it must have been suggested that Purdue’s designation as the “away” team entitled the Hoosiers to a few heaping helpings of home cooking. The referee and umpires certainly came to life after the break, as any perceived Purdue misstep was whistled as a foul. With 15:37 to play, the score was 30-all, but the Boilers’ seventh team foul of the half had already put IU in the bonus. At that point, the Purdue offense again went into a tailspin. The Hoosiers couldn’t take full advantage from the charity stripe, but did play well enough to stretch the lead out to 8 points (38-30) with 13 minutes remaining. Even though her teammates continued to struggle, Wright was again able to close the gap. A clutch three-point basket by Beth Jones then produced the third tie of the half by knotting the score at 43-all with 7 minutes to go. Mary Jo Noon, who had spent most of the game passing out of double teams, then began to look for her shot. Fouled on two consecutive Purdue possessions, she sank all four of the resulting free throws to give the Boilers a 47-45 lead as 3:19 remained on the clock.
The Hoosiers weren’t about to fold, however. Two free throws, along with a trey by a wide-open guard, allowed IU to regain the lead. Enjoying a 50-49 edge with 1:17 left on the clock. Kathi Bennett took a timeout. When play resumed, the Boilers ran a set that gave Beth Jones an open look from behind the arc. As was par for the day, Beth not only missed the shot, she fouled the rebounding IU player. As was also typical of the late-afternoon clash, the Hoosier subsequently missed both free throws. Emily Heikes grabbed the board after the second attempt. The ball made its way to Wright, who was fouled on the other end as she was attempting a driving layup. Shereka connected on both foul shots to allow Purdue to reclaim the lead, this time at 51-50, as 43 seconds remained. Erika Valek then attempted to intercept Indiana’s ensuing inbounds pass. Despite the fact nobody had control as both Valek and her Hoosier counterpart were going for the ball, a blocking foul was charged to Erika. One of the two resulting free throws connected to tie the game at 51-all. Again the ball went to Shereka, and again she was clobbered while attempting a layup. With 4.7 seconds showing on the clock, Wright put Purdue up for good by sinking both free throws. Rather than taking a timeout after the “makes”, the Hoosiers opted to put the ball in Jenny DeMuth’s hands. The sophomore raced the length of the court and released a layup attempt just before the final buzzer sounded. The ball hung on the rim for what seemed like an eternity, then fell off to allow Purdue to escape with the victory, 53-51.
Comments on specific aspects of the game:
If the orange round thing doesn’t go through the metal circle thing, all the “little things” and “things that don’t make it into the box score” don’t matter. On Saturday, Purdue played with great effort (admittedly punctuated by periods of total mental breakdown), but just couldn’t find the basket. The primary bright spot was the play of Shereka Wright, who was able to score consistently despite drawing two or three defenders on most sets. The remainder of the team went a horrid 8-for-39 from the floor. Even with Shereka added into the mix, the Boilers made a season-low 32% of their shots. Purdue did manage to hit at a 36% clip from beyond the three-point arc.
For the most part, the Boilers did an adequate job of both defending in the half-court and slowing the ball down through a variety of presses. A depressingly consistent pattern was for Purdue to play good defense for 25 seconds, only to have somebody miss an assignment and allow IU to get off a wide-open three-point shot immediately before the shot clock expired. The Hoosiers connected on 7 of their 15 long-range attempts. Bennett’s charges committed only 12 turnovers, half of which were credited as Purdue steals.
The Boilers pulled down 40 rebounds to the Hoosiers’ 41. This was an extremely surprising stat, as the Cream and Crimson seemed to dominate the glass. Emily Heikes paced Purdue with 8 caroms.
Purdue won the game on the free-throw line. Although the Boilers only got 13 foul shots on the day, they connected on all but one of those opportunities. In contrast, the Hoosiers were only able to cash in 10 of their 23 attempts. Missy Taylor and Mary Jo Noon were perfect from the charity stripe.
The Boilers recorded 13 assists and 13 turnovers. The decisions were not consistently poor. Rather, the entire team appeared to be a step slow and mentally flat. It all added up to a painfully ineffective effort.
Shereka Wright was named Big 10 Player of the Week for her performance against IU, and deservedly so. She basically put the team on her back and carried Purdue to victory. As is so often the case when all the marbles are on the line, she stuck to her signature move -- the baseline drive -- and stopped worrying about hitting outside shots. When the Boilers were playing from behind, the entire IU team converged on Wright when she received the ball, and she still was generally able to engineer a positive outcome. In addition to her scoring, Shereka played excellent defense (marred by one play on which she didn’t chase down a loose ball, perhaps because she erroneously believed the sphere had been kicked by a Hoosier) and collected more than her share of rebounds and steals. Besides collecting a game-high 26 points (10-of-17 field-goal attempts, 6-of-7 free-throw tries), Shereka ended up with 7 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 steals, and a blocked shot to 4 turnovers.
Beth Jones was the second-most effective Purdue scorer on the night, and her outside shooting in the second half was crucial to the Boilers’ success. Beth has developed into a complete player, and deserves special mention for her interior defense, which disrupted the Hoosiers’ half-court sets. Jones finished with 12 points (4-of-13 FG, 4-of-11 three-point attempts), 3 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 steals to 2 turnovers.
Several women’s basketball message boards not affiliated with Old Gold Free Press feature posters who claim not to understand why Purdue fans are so high on Erika Valek. As a Purdue fan, my response is: “What’s not to like?” Saturday, Erika’s shooting touch was one of many which went south, but Valek otherwise played another very good game. Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect was her ability to keep her teammates focused and playing hard when nothing was coming easily for the Boilers. Erika recorded a total of 5 points (2-of-7 FG, 1-of-1 from three-point range). She added 7 rebounds and 5 assists while committing only one turnover.
Although Mary Jo Noon had a difficult time of it, things aren’t quite as bad for her as they might appear. She was key to IU’s defensive game plan, and was double-teamed whenever she received the ball. Mary Jo has developed the ability to recognize this collapsing strategy, and to counter it by getting the ball out to the open Boiler. Noon took very few shots, but this fact is attributable to working within the offense, as opposed to abnormal passivity. Her frequent failure to box out and otherwise position herself to get rebounds is not so easily explained, however. When Mary Jo did go strongly to the rack, she was twice fouled and rewarded with free throws. She also managed to play decent defense against a quick, mobile post player without picking up many fouls. In 31 minutes’ play, Mary Jo recorded 4 points (0-of-2 FG, 4-of-4 FT), 2 rebounds, and a blocked shot to 2 turnovers.
Lindsey Hicks was the woman left all alone when Mary Jo or Shereka was double-teamed. She took the open shots thus created, but failed to hit a single one as she went 0-for-8 from the floor while also missing both of her free-throw attempts. Hicks played aggressively, however, and did well in the other aspects of the game. She was one of Purdue’s most effective rebounders, pulling down 7 boards in 16 minutes of play. Lindsey’s court time may have been limited by her propensity to pick up quick fouls. She also recorded an assist, a steal, and a turnover.
Although Emily Heikes wasn’t wearing her facemask, she evidenced no hesitation when called to “mix it up” under the basket. Heikes had a funny night from an offensive standpoint as she missed three point-blank layups (two when she was all alone under the basket) but made two difficult jump shots in traffic. Making left-handed layups is sure to be a point of emphasis for Emily in upcoming weeks. The Hoosiers are a physical team, and Emily held her own as she played hard-nosed defense and established position under the boards. In 27 minutes’ play, she tallied 4 points (2-of-8 FG) and a team-high 8 rebounds.
Missy Taylor, Carol Duncan, and Sharika Webb each saw limited minutes, and appeared intimidated and not “dialed in.” No doubt the culprit in each freshman’s ineffectiveness was the “double whammy” of playing in the cavernous RCA Dome just after finishing her first round of college final examinations. The fact that the upperclassmen were struggling as well further added to the youngsters’ lack of composure. Each of the three committed a turnover. Missy did go 2-for-2 from the free-throw line in her 8 minutes, and Carol pulled down a rebound in 6 minutes of action. In her ten minutes, Sharika missed her lone shot (a field-goal attempt), but did pull down 2 rebounds and dish out an assist.
Sabrina Keys, Ashley Mays, and Brianna Howard did not play.
It’s back to the drawing board for Kristy Curry. Since her first season at the Purdue helm, she’s been trying to find some way of practicing through finals week so that the team will be ready to play afterwards. This year was no better than the past three, however. Perhaps the coaching staff will eventually hit on a method that will work. There was no way to determine if Curry’s game plan was sound, as the poor execution defined the Boilers’ effort.
The referee and umpires were completely consistent – consistent with manic-depressives who have let their Paxil prescriptions run out. After letting all manner of infractions go without a whistle in the first half, the crew lurched to life in the second, calling both real and “hallucination” fouls against the Boilers. The officials were so focused on Purdue’s “hackers” that several traveling violations and other obvious infractions went unnoticed.
Before each game, the Boilermakers psych themselves up by chanting and clapping. The RCA Dome’s acoustics allowed the “whooooooo” of the “whoop-whoop whooooo” the players were chanting under the stands to be heard throughout the mostly-empty stadium, to extremely eerie effect. As the game tipped off, there were perhaps 5,000 people (most wearing gold and black) in attendance. The dome is so large, however, that the crowd seemed extremely paltry.
The Hoosier fans showed up when the men took the court, and over 32,000 people witnessed the second game on the docket. Reporters later described the “Final Four atmosphere”, but Saturday’s was a uniquely Indianian event, and one that was truly special.
There is no such thing as an ugly win, but still….
The Boilers escaped to keep their undefeated streak alive. On Tuesday, however, Purdue dropped to 7-1 after losing an 83-82 overtime thriller to the UCSB Gauchos in Santa Barbara’s infamous Thunderdome.
Game Ball: Shereka Wright