How important is a good coach to a team? It's difficult to say, as a coach typically gets too much blame when his or her team is playing poorly, and too much credit when the squad is doing well. Only the players, after all, fire up shots and grab rebounds. Yet some coaches manage to compile winning records year after year, regardless of which athletes – or even what offensive and defensive schemes – are employed in any given season. Meanwhile, there are men and women who consistently compile losing records while keeping athletic directors at bay with choruses of "building a program" and "waiting for players to buy into the system".
So why do some coaches succeed as others fail? For every Rene Portland or Kristy Curry who excels at several facets of the job -- recruiting, X's and O's, wringing maximum effort from each player -- you can find a generally ineffective coach who has mastered at least one of these aspects. Cheryl Littlejohn, who compiled a 7-57 mark in conference play during her four campaigns at the Minnesota helm, recruited both 2002 Big Ten Player of the Year Lindsay Whalen and 2002 Big Ten Freshman of the Year Janel McCarville. These two stars allowed Littlejohn's successor, Brenda (Frese) Oldfield, to step in and immediately turn the Golden Gophers into winners. Former Iowa bench boss Angie Lee was at least credited for getting the most out of a squad that reflected her inability to land top prospects. Yet in Lisa Bluder’s first season as Lee’s replacement, the “talent-poor” Hawkeyes won the 2001 Big 10 Tournament. Perhaps the only truly defining characteristic of a successful coach, then, is demonstrating the ability to win.
As had Minnesota the year before, Ohio State finally tired of its underachieving women's basketball team last April and elected to "go in a different direction" by replacing Beth Burns, who had not been able to duplicate the success she had enjoyed in her eight seasons at San Diego State, with Jim Foster. After compiling an overall mark of 504-225 in 13 seasons at St. Joseph’s and 11 at Vanderbilt, Foster has taken the same basic cast of characters who struggled to a 14-15 record in 2001-02 and pulled off an overnight success in Columbus. To be fair, Foster has benefited from the availability of such “inheritances” as Caity Matter and Kim Wilburn. After being named Ms. Ohio Basketball 2000 as a high school senior, Matter stepped into the Buckeyes’ starting lineup the following fall before a series of fractures sidelined her for much of that season and all of the next. Freshman Wilburn, one of Burns’s final recruits, has established herself as the starting point guard. Yet there is little doubt in the mind of anyone who bleeds scarlet and gray that the Buckeyes are much better off under Foster. After finishing with an 8-8 mark in league play last season, Ohio State cruised to a 6-1 record in the first few weeks of conference action for 2002-03. Tied for first place in the Big Ten standings, Foster’s squad looked worthy of being ranked in the national polls. The “reality check” portion of the lopsided slate was about to commence, however. On January 30, OSU visited Penn State and lost by 15 points. The easy Lady Lion win indicated that the upstart Bucks might not be quite ready to run with the big dogs. As the Buckeyes took the floor at Mackey Arena three days later, however, they did so with a level of intensity and skill not seen in any Ohio State women's basketball team for the last several years.
Purdue drew first blood as a Beth Jones trey began the scoring just 20 seconds into the contest. The strong post play of Courtney Coleman and unearthly three-point shooting of Caity Matter kept the visitors in the game, however. By the ten-minute mark, the Buckeyes had a 25-23 lead. For most of the opening half, the Boilers played a zone defense that largely kept Ohio State's inside attack in check. The strategy did, however, allow the Buckeyes to attempt relatively uncontested shots from the perimeter. Repeatedly, the Boilers would score from the low block, only to allow OSU to answer quickly. With two minutes left in the first period, the visitors enjoyed a 34-29 advantage. Their biggest lead of the half, it was all but wiped out by two Erika Valek free throws and a Shereka Wright breakaway layup that beat the buzzer and narrowed the gap to 34-33 as the intermission arrived.
Purdue opened the second half in a man-to-man. Coleman was immediately able to exploit her defender, Lindsey Hicks, for two quick buckets that put the Bucks back up by 5. The Boilermakers then switched back to a more favorable defensive alignment, and began to trap and press the dribbler. The resultant increase in Purdue intensity turned the tide. A garbage basket by Mary Jo Noon gave the hosts a 40-39 lead -- their first of the half. Missy Taylor’s open three at the 15-minute mark widened the margin to 47-41. Under a different coach’s guidance, the Buckeyes might have folded their tent at this point. Foster, however, kept his charges focused enough to execute their game plan. Five minutes later, OSU had clawed its way back, capitalizing on a string of Purdue turnovers and missed shots to tie the game.
With 4 minutes left, the score was knotted at 57-all. Yet OSU had repeatedly stopped the clock earlier in the period in order to halt Purdue’s momentum. Having exhausted his supply of timeouts, Foster couldn't settle his inexperienced charges when they missed their free throws or became rattled by an increase in Boiler intensity. With 3:55 on the clock, Purdue was in a half-court set. Erika Valek, who had the ball at the top of the key, looked to pass. Seeing that the Buckeyes were covering her targets while laying off of her, Erika had all the time in the world to carefully spot up for a trey. She made the tie-breaking shot, as well as the next basket, before Ohio State was able to narrow the gap once more. With 44 seconds remaining, the Boilers were clinging to a 64-62 lead. At that point, all but 5 of the 9000 people in Mackey knew that the ball was going to go to Shereka Wright. Unfortunately for Foster, those clueless individuals were the five Buckeyes on the court. Shereka was able to get lost on the baseline and end up all alone right next to the bucket. After Beth Jones found Wright and passed the ball to the junior, OSU attempted to recover, but could only foul Shereka as she made a field goal. Wright completed the three-point play to conclude the scoring in the 67-62 Purdue victory.
Comments on Specific Aspects of the Game:
After shooting at around a 50% clip for the last several games, Purdue lost its shooting touch for much of Sunday's clash. The Boilers connected on 40% of their attempts from the field, including 35% of their shots from three-point land. Despite these mediocre numbers, it seemed as if one or another of Kristy Curry’s charges could be counted on to rise to the occasion whenever a bucket was most needed.
The defensive effort was reminiscent of the offensive performance -- not particularly effective overall, but successful when it had to be. After Matter was perfect on five three-point attempts in the first half, the Boilers were able to hold her to a 1-for-4 effort from behind the arc in the final 20 minutes. They did so by double-teaming Caity. Although Wilburn was thus left uncovered, Kim lived up to her “good pass, no shot” reputation by making only one of the six field goals she attempted on the day. Overall, the Buckeyes were "held" to 47% shooting from the floor, including a 57% clip from “downtown”. The visitors did commit 18 turnovers, half of which were credited as Purdue steals.
Purdue had the edge on the boards, out-rebounding OSU by a 34-31 margin. As has been the case recently, the effort was well distributed among the Boilers. Emily Heikes led the way with a game-high 8 caroms.
A good team finds a way to win even when neither its offense nor defense is clicking on all cylinders. For Purdue Sunday, salvation came via the free-throw line. On a day when every other aspect of their game was average at best, the Boilers’ white-hot 95% shooting from the charity stripe allowed them to pull out the victory. Mary Jo Noon went 4-for-4, as did Erika Valek. Even more incredibly, Shereka Wright connected on each of her 11 attempts
Although they had 13 assists to 16 turnovers, the Boilers generally took care of the ball and made good decisions with it. During a crucial stretch of the second half, however, Purdue attempted to force the entry pass into the post on several consecutive trips down the floor. The resulting turnovers allowed the Buckeyes to quickly get back into the game.
Shereka Wright has not yet regained the shooting form she displayed prior to her recent injury. During the first twenty minutes, Wright played quite tentatively and seemed to settle for outside jumpers that missed the mark. After halftime, she looked more comfortable as she began to drive to the basket and draw fouls. If anything, Shereka's performance from the charity stripe has improved since she fractured a bone in her left hand. Perhaps the wrist support she receives from a protective brace has stabilized her motion. Shereka finished with a team-best 21 points (5-of-10 field-goal attempts, 11-of-11 free throws). She also collected 6 rebounds, 3 assists, a block, a steal, and 3 turnovers.
Once again, center Mary Jo Noon impressed with her ability to cut off driving posts despite her apparent speed disadvantage relative to her inside counterparts. Mary Jo played a very good defensive game. Her main contribution on the boards is to block out and allow her teammates to grab the ball, and she did a very good job of that as well. Noon didn't attempt any hook shots or long jumpers Sunday. When the guards got her the ball after she had sealed her defender, however, she was a reliable scorer. Mary Jo recorded 10 points (3-of-6 FG, 4-of-4 FT), 6 rebounds, a blocked shot, and a steal.
Perhaps it’s merely coincidence, or the natural result of additional seasoning. Ever since Curry has gone on record by saying that there are no plans to bench Lindsey Hicks, however, Lindsey’s game has improved. Not long ago, Hicks regularly seemed to fade in and out when on the court. More recently, she has kept her “disappearances” to a minimum while generally keeping her focus and making positive contributions. Although Lindsey still lacks the savvy to shut down a player like Courtney Coleman one-on-one, Hicks’s overall game is much better than it was just two weeks ago. In thirty minutes of consistent effort Sunday, Lindsey notched 4 points (2-of-5 FG, 0-of-2 three-point attempts), 7 rebounds, an assist, 2 steals, and 0 turnovers.
Beth Jones had a patchy game. While she did extremely well in some areas, she had uncharacteristic problems in others. She attempted no two-pointers, and each of her 8 three-point attempts came when the Buckeyes had lost track of her and she was all alone behind the arc. She connected on 3 of these shots for her 9 total points in the contest. Only her 0-for-1 performance from the charity stripe kept the Boilers from achieving perfection at the line. Jones did grab a rebound, make a steal, and dish out 4 assists on the afternoon. Until recently, Beth hasn't been called on to feed the post, and this inexperience at passing inside led her to force and telegraph passes that produced the majority of her 4 turnovers. Beth's largest impact on the game wasn't recorded in the box score, however. Jones dogged Matter throughout the second half, never leaving Caity’s side. As was the case when Beth shadowed Penn State's Kelly Mazzante in this manner, Matter got more frustrated and less effective as the game wore on.
Following two games in which she couldn't miss, Erika Valek had trouble hitting from the field Sunday. After the victory over OSU, Curry suggested that the problem stemmed from Valek’s tendency to rush her shots in the first half. As is so often the case with clutch players, however, Erika was able to make the key baskets when they were needed. Meanwhile, the highlight of her performance was the excellent 2:1 ratio she recorded as she dished out 4 assists while committing only 2 turnovers. Erika also finished with 16 points (5-of-15 FG, 2-of-4 treys, 4-of-4 FT), 4 rebounds, and 2 steals.
Emily Heikes further cemented her status of fan favorite with her intense and gritty play. Although the Buckeyes’ occasional ability to gain an advantage on her made it obvious that Emily is still learning the finer points of post defense, her lapses never reflect a lack of effort. When Heikes is in a pack of 4 players going for a rebound, she invariably comes down with the ball. Of her game-high 8 caroms, an extremely impressive five were recorded on the offensive end. In twenty-two minutes, Emily also netted 4 points (2-of-5 FG), an assist, a blocked shot, and two steals to 2 turnovers.
On both of Sharika Webb's turnovers, the freshman guard hit an open teammate with a pass so hard that the post couldn't hang onto the ball. These miscues were “better” than the interceptions thrown by Webb in previous games, and reflected the fact Sharika’s all-around game is steadily improving. Webb missed from behind the arc on her only shot attempt, but did pull down a rebound.
Missy Taylor made the most of her 4 minutes of playing time. The Buckeyes paid no attention to her as she stood all alone on thewing, and Missy sank a shot from beyond the arc for her 3 total points on the day. Overall, she went 1-for-3 from the floor, including 1-for-2 on attempted treys. Although she was charged with a turnover, Missy also handled the ball quite well as she evidenced good court vision.
With the exception of the two minutes of action she saw, Carol Duncan’s box score line featured an unbroken string of zeroes. Sabrina Keys and Brianna Howard did not play.
Curry exhibited a great deal of flexibility as she attempted different strategies and made various adjustments during the course of the game. During the opening stanza, the Boilers generally stuck with a basic zone defense. When Curry introduced such wrinkles as presses and traps after the break, the Buckeyes appeared to be caught off guard as they responded poorly. This first-half sandbagging on Purdue’s part has been appearing more and more frequently. So far, it has worked extremely well.
When the umpire standing two feet away from a play makes no move while the referee whistles a foul from clear across the court, it is obvious that either the near official doesn't recognize an infraction as one is occurring right in from of him or that the far official is so out of position that she is misinterpreting what is going on. Sunday, this scenario played out time and again as umpires Dennis Mayer and Mark Zentz seemed to be going by "no blood no foul" rules and seldom called anything. Meanwhile, Dee Kantner's X-ray eyes were picking up charges and hacks that no mere mortal was able to see.
Sunday’s official attendance was 8907. The Mackey crowd was easily the loudest of the year, and OSU's two shot-clock violations could be directly linked to the decibel level in the building. When the Buckeyes appeared to be flustered by the noise, the fans took the positive reinforcement to heart and turned the volume higher still.
With the win, Purdue improves to 18-3 overall and 7-2 in the Big 10, good enough for sole possession of second place in the conference behind 8-1 Penn State. Things now lighten up for the Boilers as they host league cellar-dweller Northwestern on Thursday, then have a week to prepare for February 13’s date with the Lady Lions in Happy Valley. Curry’s charges then play three of their next four games in the friendly confines of Mackey. Penn State, meanwhile, has a very tough road schedule in the coming weeks. All signs point to the Boilers’ securing of at least a portion of the regular-season title if the Vegas Gold and Black can take care of business from here on out.
Game Ball: Shereka Wright