On paper, the 2002-03 Penn State team looks to have major, loss-inducing problems. Even after the recent granting of eligibility to Australian Melanie Croser, the Lady Lions only dressed 8 players for Thursday’s game. The major reason why head coach Rene Portland has so few athletes is that she regularly runs women off the squad. This fact raises the possibility of chemistry issues in University Park. Before the current campaign began, 6’4" Courtney Upshaw was shown the door for failing to meet conditioning goals. Yet even with Ashli Schwab as their only remaining true post player, the Lady Lions were picked to win the Big 10 crown in a pre-season poll of coaches. Although many folks had to wonder what these voters were smoking, Portland’s club was perhaps selected because her peers know good coaching when they see it. Love her or hate her, Portland has always excelled at maximizing her charges’ strengths while minimizing their deficiencies. More than anything else, she now has a great scorer in Kelly Mazzante. Portland has designed the offense to allow Kelly to get her points -- the Lady Lions have more screens than Lowe’s and Menards combined. This strategy has, more often than not, been successful. Going into the showdown at Mackey, Penn State enjoyed a #13 ranking in the AP poll, a 13-3 overall record, and a 4-0 mark in league play. For Kristy Curry’s club to stay on track in its bid for a conference championship three-peat, therefore, the Boilers needed to win -- both to keep their own momentum and to bring the Lady Lions back to the rest of the Big 10 pack.
The first half seemed less a basketball game than a chess match as both Portland and Curry used moves, counter-moves, and other ploys to feel out the opposition. Initially, Penn State’s offense consisted of Mazzante. Kelly has a hair-trigger shot release, perhaps because she doesn't concern herself with such trivia as how she squares up her shoulders to the basket, how closely she is defended, or how far away she is from the hoop before she lets fly. If Portland’s intent was to lure Purdue into fouling Mazzante, the Boilers didn’t bite. Instead, they watched her go 0-for-5 from the field as they ran out to a 6-point lead behind Mary Jo Noon‘s offensive rebounding and put-backs. With 13:07 on the clock, the score was 11-5 in the home team’s favor. Then Penn State became adept at finding the mismatches when Purdue switched on screens. A little more than a minute later, the game was tied at 11-all. A series of Boiler turnovers slowed down the hosts’ attack. Meanwhile, Penn State went inside and was able to connect on some close-range baskets. With 2:08 left in the half, an uncontested three-point shot by Mazzante gave the visitors a 31-25 lead and caused Curry to take a timeout. After breaking the sideline huddle, the hosts responded by slashing to the basket and playing tighter defense. Purdue was able to reduce its deficit to three (36-33) as the period ended.
The Boilers opened the second stanza by pushing the ball inside. Within the first two minutes, Lindsey Hicks and Mary Jo Noon canned deuces before an Erika Valek trey completed a 7-0 run and gave Purdue a 40-36 advantage. Penn State then quickly reeled Curry’s troops back in and went up by two (44-42) by the first media timeout of the half. Mary Jo hit three baskets to pull the hosts back into the lead, only to see Penn State reclaim the lead with the help of two treys. Beth Jones answered with a three-pointer of her own before teammate Shereka Wright was fouled on a breakaway layup attempt and hit two free throws to widen Purdue's lead to 55-52 with 10:50 remaining. Heady play allowed the Boilers to keep a slim lead for much of the remainder of the game. With 5:59 left, Purdue enjoyed its largest margin of the night. Up 66-56, however, the Vegas Gold and Black suddenly went cold from the floor and allowed Penn State to narrow the gap once more. A Jess Strom three-pointer brought the Lady Lions back to within two, 67-65, with 1:50 to play. On the ensuing possession, Shereka Wright made a desperation two-handed push shot with the 30-second clock running down. The bucket put the Boilers back up by four with 1:18 left. On Purdue’s next possession, Penn State allowed the shot clock to run down. By the time Shereka was fouled attempting to put back her own missed shot, only 24 seconds remained. The Lady Lions then began to foul quickly when the Boilers had the ball, and the hosts connected on enough free throws to make the final score 73-66.
Comments on Specific Aspects of the Game
Purdue hit 40% of its shots from the floor, including 33% from behind the arc. This is a pretty poor figure for any team that is winning, let alone a club that generally defeats its ranked opponents. Most successful when they pounded the ball inside to Mary Jo Noon, the Boilers went on their decisive run when they connected on their low-block shots. Since Curry’s charges have been shooting three-pointers particularly poorly, perhaps the hosts’ 3-of-5 (60%) second-half effort in that category indicates they’ve finally come
out of that slump.
Thursday’s statistics can be quite misleading when evaluating Purdue’s defensive performance. It might appear that the Boilers failed when one looks at the Lady Lions’ 41% shooting from the field, which featured a 47% clip from behind the three-point line. Kelly Mazzante, who almost always scores in double figures, was able to lead Penn State with 16 points. When one considers that the Lady Lions came in averaging around 80 points per game and that Mazzante was hitting at a 26.6 ppg clip, however, the Boilers' effort suddenly doesn't look so bad. Beth Jones deserves special mention for dogging Mazzante and causing the high-scoring junior visible frustration as the game wore on.
Purdue grabbed two more boards than Penn State (37-35). Although the Boilers’ rebounds were well-distributed, Mary Jo Noon was particularly dominant in nabbing 10 caroms, including 7 off the offensive glass.
Purdue shot an enormous number of free throws, scoring 23 points from the line in 31 attempts for a 74% clip. In contrast, Penn State went 11 for 15. This discrepancy appeared to be primarily due to Portland’s game plan, as the Lady Lions seemed intent on fouling on virtually every Purdue field-goal attempt. Erika Valek was a perfect 2-of-2 from the stripe.
The Boilers finished with 13 assists and an equal number of turnovers. For most of the contest, the Boilers played a heady brand of ball and minimized giveaways. More than once, however, Purdue responded slowly to a new Penn State defensive wrinkle and turned the ball over as a result.
It was Wright on Wright all night. For a defensive assignment, Shereka Wright was given Tanisha Wright. Although the speedy Penn State sophomore got her points, Shereka came out on top. The Lady Lions’ game plan appeared to be to "get physical" with Shereka, who was clobbered whenever she took the ball to the basket. Purdue’s Wright is about the worst person to do this to, however, as she doesn’t get frustrated by the rough treatment. Calmly taking the free points she was given, the standout junior notched 16 of her game-high 24 markers from the charity stripe. In addition to hitting 4 of her 13 field-goal attempts and all but two of her 18 free-throw tries, Shereka amassed 5 rebounds, 2 assists, 3 blocked shots, 2 steals, and 3 turnovers.
Although Mary Jo Noon is often double-teamed by tall post players, Portland did not have the luxury of employing such a strategy. Perhaps this was the reason that Mary Jo had her best game of the season. From the opening tip, she went aggressively to the basket. Also, in contrast to the weak prayers she was hoisting towards the hoop in previous contests, her shots were strong and on target. She scored from the high block with authority while demonstrating a silky-smooth stroke. Noon recorded the first double-double of her senior campaign. To her 18 points (9-of-15 FG, 0-of-2 FT) and 10 rebounds, she added 3 blocks, 1 steal, and 1 turnover
After having a quiet first half, Lindsey Hicks bounced back by playing with much more authority and hitting some big shots after the intermission. Lindsey was on the court down the stretch, when her tight defense was particularly effective. In all, Hicks compiled a line of 9 points (4-of-11 FG, 1-of-4 from three-point range), 2 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 block, and 1 steal
If Beth Jones keeps nailing clutch shots and shutting down name opponents, she’s going to lose that “role player” tag everyone seems so intent on hanging on her. Beth is a deceptive player who contributes everywhere on the court in every situation. Most teams appear to play her as an outside shooter and otherwise ignore her. Here’s hoping those opponents don’t wise up any time soon. Beth’s most important points Thursday came off dribble drives, put-backs, and foul shots. In going toe to toe with the constantly moving Mazzante, Jones was able to hold her own against the All-American. At the end of the night, Beth had 14 points (4-of-8 FG, 2-of-4 treys, 4-of-5 FT), 4 rebounds, 2 assists, and 1 steal to 1 turnover
Erika Valek had the unenviable job of reading the Penn State defenses and getting the ball up the court against traps. All the while, she was being bumped and hounded by Tanisha Wright. Erika moved the ball extremely well, and was particularly adept at finding the open player on the other side of the press. Valek did not score as much as she has in past games, perhaps because her energies were expended elsewhere. On the night, Erika lodged 5 points (1-of-8 FG, 1-of-4 treys, 2-of-2 FT), 4 rebounds, 8 assists, and 4 turnovers
Emily Heikes was the only Purdue reserve to see more than 10 minutes. Most effective on the defensive end, she had some key stops -- both rebounds and steals -- in the second half. Curry has recognized Emily’s defensive prowess, and has begun alternating Heikes and Noon in end-of-game situations. Emily enters when Purdue is on defense, then is replaced by Mary Jo when Purdue gains possession. Heikes finished with 3 points (1-of-3 FG, 1-of-4 FT), 6 rebounds, 2 steals, and 1 turnover.
Whether it was because the freshmen lack experience or because Curry needed her starters on the court, the newest Boilers saw very little time. The Lady Lions had prepared for Sharika Webb, and trapped her as soon as she touched the ball. Although caught completely off guard the first time this occurred, Webb was still able to get free -- and to draw a foul on one of the trappers, to boot. Sharika subsequently had even more success moving the ball up the court, but was charged with 2 turnovers in her 8 minutes. Carol Duncan’s quickness was a good match for the speed of Penn State’s posts. Duncan continues to attract whistles at an unnatural rate, however, and was assessed 2 fouls in her 9 minutes. Missy Taylor saw 2 minutes of action, but the rest of her box-score line was a row of zeroes. Sabrina Keys and Brianna Howard did not play. Following her academically related suspension, Ashley Mays was (as mandated by the NCAA) not in uniform. Sitting on the bench in street clothes, however, she did appear to be into the game. This bodes very well for her return as a contributing member of the team next fall, and was very nice to see.
Since Curry’s arrival, Purdue has been extremely effective in shutting down other teams’ leading scorers. This has happened so consistently that it must be due to coached team strategy rather than any exemplary individual effort. The Boilers assign one player to shadow the opposing star, but switch off when the “go-to girl” runs through a screen. This saves the energies of the primary defender, who doesn’t need to fight through pick after pick all night. The most important feature of the strategy is to allow the high scorer to take her shot without being fouled. Kelly Mazzante, who unofficially released 20 shots from the floor, was only fouled on two. She was subsequently able to score from the charity stripe on 3 of 4 undefended attempts. Of the 18 shots she got off without being fouled, only 5 connected. In contrast, Penn State’s strategy appeared to be to hack Purdue’s Wright whenever she got near the basket, and Shereka tallied the lion’s share of
her points at the line. Advantage: Curry.
A Penn State fan who read the box score of Thursday’s game would be tempted to scream “homer bias”, as the Lady Lions were whistled for 23 fouls to the 15 charged to the host team. When watching the game, however, it was evident that the Lady Lions were attempting to foul open shooters, and the infractions were merely being called as they were committed.
It was obvious that the majority of the 7146 in attendance knew the importance of the clash. The fans were loud and active most of the night. The fact that classes are now back in session is probably the reason there appeared to be more Boiler Gold Rush members present than during other recent games.
Things don’t get any easier for the Boilers, who must now travel to Minneapolis to take on a well-rested Minnesota team. Became the Golden Gophers do not make the trip to Mackey Arena this season, Sunday’s game assumes particular importance in the battle for the Big 10 championship. One hopes that Curry’s charges will take the positives from Thursday’s game --particularly the defense and outside shooting on display in the second half -- on the bus with them.
Game Ball: Mary Jo Noon