There was every reason to be concerned about the Purdue Boilermakers’ chances against Notre Dame before Saturday’s game. The Fighting Irish, who entered the contest ranked #13 nationally in both the AP and USA Today/ESPN polls, have defended their home court very well in recent memory. Muffet McGraw’s club had not lost a non-conference clash at the Joyce Center in 5 years, while the Boilers had failed to win in the shadow of “Touchdown Jesus” since 1994. What's more, Kristy Curry’s charges were coming off two less-than-stellar Mackey Arena triumphs, and had struggled in some road appearances as well. Purdue looked to be extremely vulnerable to strong post play and active zone defense, both of which the Irish just happen to feature in spades. As if all this weren't bad enough, the demands of national television could only be accommodated by shoehorning the game into an already tight portion of the Boilers’ schedule. Thus, the Vegas Gold and Black took the Notre Dame court less than 48 hours after exerting the energy required to defeat the determined and athletic Tulane Green Wave.
Not surprisingly, then, the Boilers got off to a slow start. Although their effort and intensity were high, the visitors from West Lafayette couldn't find the basket or otherwise get on track offensively. Their original strategy of going inside to Mary Jo Noon was thwarted when the senior center picked up two quick fouls, and Notre Dame's zone defense kept the Boilers from establishing any kind of rhythm. As the national audience was shifted to the Joyce Center after the conclusion of UConn’s overtime victory over Tennessee, the score was tied at 12-all with twelve minutes remaining in the first half. In the ensuing five minutes, Purdue missed 10 straight shots from the field. Although most of the Irish were also contained during that stretch, Courtney LaVere and Le'Tania Severe regularly managed to penetrate Purdue's defenses for scores. With less than 5:00 to go in the half, the Boilers trailed by a 22-17 count. Backup ND point guard Megan Duffy was then stripped of the ball by Sharika Webb, who drove for a breakaway layup with Duffy in hot pursuit. As Sharika went up, she was tackled by Megan, and both players went crashing into the basket stanchion. Duffy, who aggravated a previous knee injury in the collision, left the floor shortly afterwards and never returned. The remainder of the half was all Purdue, as the Boilers poured in ten unanswered points (seven by Erika Valek) to go into the locker room ahead by 5 (27-22).
The second half started exactly as the first half had ended. Purdue was able to beat Notre Dame’s zone through ball reversal, then hit the resulting open three-point shots. Meanwhile, the Boilers’ man-to-man defense kept every Irish player besides LaVere from scoring, and the visitors quickly pulled away. With ten minutes left in the period, the lead had reached 56-35, and the game was essentially over. Curry gave instructions to take the air out of the ball, and her troops complied by letting the shot clock wind down before looking to score. Despite playing in this fashion, the women in black never stopped hustling. They won most of the fights for loose balls, and continued to grab the lion's share of the rebounds. The final margin was 17 points (71-54).
Comments on specific aspects of the game:
The Boilers hit 37% of their field-goal attempts for the game, including 40% of their tries from behind the arc. This statistic is very misleading, as Purdue actually shot extremely poorly for the first 10 minutes of the game, then at a “lights out” rate the rest of the afternoon. The Boilers were quite good at taking the shots (usually pull-up jumpers or three-pointers) the Irish gave them.
Purdue played games within games on the defensive end. One Boiler, usually Shereka Wright, stuck with Jackie Batteast and prevented the superb sophomore wing player from catching the ball or putting up an easy shot. Another Boiler, usually Beth Jones, face-guarded Alicia Ratay and denied the three-point ace meaningful touches. The remaining Purdue athletes played a man-to-man as well, but helped out and rotated over to double-team as needed. Although the relatively unguarded LaVere consequently had a huge night, the strategy generally worked by keeping the Irish from getting shots off. The hosts did score on 50% of their field-goal attempts, but only released 40 to Purdue’s 73. Notre Dame committed 24 turnovers, 16 of which were credited as Purdue steals.
The place where Purdue’s superior desire and toughness were particularly evident was on the boards. Time and again, the Boilers would be able to keep the ball in play and get second and third chances after grabbing offensive rebounds. In all, the visitors grabbed 41 caroms (including a remarkable 26 off the offensive glass) to the hosts’ 33. Carol Duncan led the Old Gold and Black by collecting 6 rebounds in only 10 minutes of play.
This aspect of the game had a minor impact on the outcome. Purdue hit 11-of-17 (65%). Of the five Boilers who went to the line, Erika Valek (2-for-2) was the only one to turn in a perfect performance.
This was easily Purdue’s best game of the season in terms of reading defenses and reacting appropriately to them. The backcourt players, particularly Valek, made excellent decisions with the ball. Curry’s club was thus credited with 14 assists while being charged with only 9 turnovers. What is not recorded in the box score was that the Boilers also dictated the tempo of the game and set the emotional tone. To be able to do this in a hostile arena against a ranked team is particularly impressive.
For the fourth time in as many games, Mary Jo Noon found herself double- or triple-teamed whenever she touched the ball. And while this strategy does succeed in shutting down Mary Jo, one wonders which opposing coach will eventually realize that the Boilers continue to overcome this tactic by stretching their winning streak. In the second half, McGraw had her charges play Noon straight up, and Mary Jo quickly began connecting on easy baskets and drawing fouls. Noon finished with 9 points (2-of-10 field-goal attempts, 5-of-7 free-throw tries), 5 rebounds, 1 assist, and 1 blocked shot to 3 turnovers.
Shereka Wright bounced back from a subpar performance against Tulane. Wright’s best contribution was one that didn’t make the box score. By shadowing Batteast, Shereka limited Jackie’s output until the game was out of reach. Wright, who was called for 3 charges against the Green Wave, took care not to risk a similar statistic Saturday. Thus, she was content to pull up and hit from ten feet out. Besides a team-high 18 points (8-of-19 FG, 0-of-2 three-point attempts, 2-of-4 FT), Shereka amassed 5 rebounds, 2 assists, and 2 steals to 2 turnovers.
Lindsey Hicks had a quiet game. Although she was once again the person left all alone when Mary Jo was double-teamed, Hicks had a hard time connecting on her shots. She did join her teammates in boxing out well and playing aggressive defense. Lindsey recorded a total of 3 points (1-of-7 FG, 0-of-1 from three-point range, 1-of-2 FT), 3 rebounds, a steal, and a turnover.
Beth Jones had what was perhaps her best game as a Boilermaker. She stuck to Ratay more closely than a sweaty sports bra, and limited Alicia to two shots and zero points. Beth won the hustle award as well, and was rewarded for her hard-nosed play on several occasions. By following on fast breaks, she was able to collect rebounds and put-backs when her teammates misfired. Jones also helped Purdue retain possession on numerous other occasions. After nailing back-to-back treys during the crucial run that put the game out of reach early in the second half, Beth ended the night with 8 points (3-of-7 FG, 2-of-6 from behind the arc), 5 rebounds, 3 assists, and 3 steals.
Somebody outside West Lafayette is singing Erika Valek’s praises. Finally! Debbie Antonelli, the CBS color commentator, couldn’t say enough about the junior. Antonelli expressed the belief that Valek is not only one of the best point guards in the country, but one of the most underrated players as well. If there is any justice, this network TV endorsement will allow Erika to hit the national radar screen and – as long as Valek continues to play as she has lately -- remain there. Erika was the straw that stirred the Boilermaker drink Saturday as she dictated tempo at all times, disrupted the Notre Dame offense with her quick hands and feet, and nailed the shots needed for the Boilers to stay in attack mode. Valek’s line is certainly All-American even if her recognition quotient is not. In 37 minutes, Erika accumulated 15 points (5-of-13 FG, 3-of-4 treys, 2-of-2 FT), 4 rebounds, 6 assists, 6 steals, and (perhaps the most important number of all) zero turnovers.
When Emily Heikes replaces Mary Jo Noon, the Boilers give up 5 inches of height, but add about 40 pounds of “mean”. Emily’s aggressive play worked to her benefit against Notre Dame’s passive posts, and Heikes made positive contributions every time she was on the court. The best news is that her shot was falling for her. If this continues, opposing teams will need to guard her, and won’t be able to double-team Purdue’s other “bigs”. Emily finished up with 10 points (5-of-6 FG), 3 rebounds, an assist, and 2 steals to 1 turnover.
Sharika Webb is a gamer, and appears to be one of those players who will get her points in just about any circumstance. Her speed presented a huge match-up problem for the Irish, which was perhaps the reason she logged 17 minutes. Webb did make the occasional freshman error, but her positives outweighed her negatives by a wide margin. Sharika recorded 8 points (3-of-6 FG, 1-of-1 trey, 1-of-2 FT), 1 rebound, an assist, and 2 steals to 1 turnover.
Carol Duncan was extremely active on the low block during her time on the court. She couldn’t connect on her shot (0-of-2 FG) and committed one turnover, but was able to snare 6 rebounds in ten minutes.
Missy Taylor saw less court time than typical because Curry obviously wanted to take advantage of the speed advantage Purdue enjoyed when Webb, Valek, and Wright were all in the lineup. Missy didn’t score (0-of-3 FG, 0-of-1 from behind the arc), but did pull down 2 rebounds in 2 minutes’ play.
Sabrina Keys and Brianna Howard entered the game during the final minute, but recorded no numbers of note.
While Erika and her teammates received boatloads of positive comments from the TV announcers, Curry once again got little notice. This was all the more curious considering she came into the Joyce Center with an excellent game plan, devised a defensive scheme that totally took Notre Dame out of its offense, and managed her personnel extremely well. Curry experimented with rotations quite a bit, and occasionally featured a lineup of three, or even four, guards.
The referee and umpires were invisible in a good way as they let the players play without allowing the contest to degenerate into a free-for-all. The fouls were almost evenly divided between the two teams – 18 were charged to Purdue, versus 17 to Notre Dame – and there was no evident “homer” bias.
An in-state rival comes to town. That rival is ranked in the Top 10 nationally, the game is on network TV, and all Notre Dame can do to “enhance” the atmosphere is to play some tinny music over the public-address system and scrape up the Corpus Christi School Cheer Leaders, a group as anemic and passive as the Big East team it was purportedly rooting for. Purdue brought its cheerleaders, who went up to the cheap seats to – logically enough -- lead the sizable contingent of Boiler fans in cheers. At least among the rafters, the ambience was that of a Purdue home game. Of the 9483 spectators officially on hand, a sizable number were decked out in gold and black.
Purdue finished the pre-conference portion of the campaign with an 11-1 record. This mark includes wins over such elite teams as Boston College, Vanderbilt, and -- of course -- Notre Dame. Just a one-point loss at UC Santa Barbara currently separates the Boilers from an undefeated season, so the non-league segment of the schedule must thus be considered a resounding success. During the past couple of months, the bench players have grown and improved enough that they can now contribute on a constant basis, and the starters have gelled to the point of playing very well together. The Big 10 slate now starts with a bang as the Boilers play three games (the first two on the road) within a six-day span.
Game Ball: Erika Valek