Just as a gap of fewer than two seconds separates the best sprinter in the world from a decent high school runner, the chasm between the best and worst NCAA Division I basketball teams is quite narrow. Northwestern might have the worst record in the Big 10 conference, but June Olkowski’s club is still composed of talented athletes who will score if left unguarded. As they stepped onto the Mackey Arena floor Thursday, the Wildcats were focused and ready to go. More significantly, they did not appear to be intimidated by their surroundings as they played with confidence. Purdue, meanwhile, appeared to believe that N-o-r-t-h-w-e-s-t-e-r-n was another way to spell “vacation”. As the Boilermakers had visited Evanston just eleven days earlier and beaten the ‘Cats by 16 points, this attitude was understandable. The result, however, was a sloppy game that was frustrating to watch.
The Wildcats’ superior effort and desire were evident from the opening tip as the visitors gained possession and immediately scored. Purdue then claimed the lead on an Erika Valek trey, and the exchange of baskets was on. Northwestern’s post players, particularly Sarah Kwasinski, were taking advantage of the Boilers’ man-to-man defense by hitting relatively uncontested jumpers. At the first media timeout, Olkowski’s charges enjoyed an 11-7 advantage. When Northwestern came out of the break and scored on an easy back-door layup, Purdue coach Kristy Curry was moved to take her first timeout of the contest. Whatever was said in the huddle failed to break the Boilers out of their funk, and the Cats increased their lead to 21-12 with about nine minutes remaining in the half. At that point, the Boilers stopped allowing Northwestern to dictate the slow tempo Olkowski preferred, and began to storm back. It wasn’t so much any one woman in Vegas Gold and Black taking over as it was a case of the entire team stepping up to a new level of intensity and focus. With a bit more than one minute left in the half, two Mary Jo Noon free throws put the Boilers up for good, 31-30. The halftime margin was 33-32.
One can only imagine what Curry said to her charges during the intermission. A logical guess, however, would be that the coach’s words could be distilled to "Get the lead out and play defense!" After play resumed, the Boilers dictated the tempo as they executed well on offense and applied ball pressure on defense. Behind balanced scoring, including two Beth Jones three-pointers, Purdue put together a 14-0 run that made the score 47-32 by the first media timeout of the half. Apparently believing the win was secure, the Boilers went back into vacation mode. They began to commit unforced turnovers and other mental errors. One thing the hosts did manage to do consistently in the second half, however, was to press Northwestern just enough to slow its ball movement up the court. This success invariably left the Cats with a “short shot clock” once they finally got into an offensive set. As the visitors had trouble scoring quickly, they failed to make up ground despite Purdue’s sloppy play. When Northwestern attempted to inbound the ball against a Purdue press, the usual strategy was to throw a baseball pass into the frontcourt. On one such attempt (which deserves special mention if only because it was so bizarre), the ball landed immediately in front of the intended receiver, bounced between her legs without hitting them, and went out of bounds. With the Boilers up by 20 in the final minutes, Curry emptied her bench. While freshman walk-on Brianna Howard appeared in her seventh game, sophomore Hannah Anderson saw action for the first time this season. The final score was 74-56.
Comments on Specific Aspects of the Game
Purdue had trouble maintaining intensity, and thus attempted fewer field goals than is typical for a Curry-coached club. The Boilers did shoot at a fairly good 46% clip overall (23-of-50), and at a fractionally better rate from behind the arc (6-of-13).
Since her arrival at Purdue, Curry has coached such award-winners as Katie Douglas, Camille Cooper, and Kelly Komara. The former Boiler Kristy missed the most Thursday, though, may have been Michelle Duhart. The element most glaringly missing from the current edition of the team is a defensive stopper as reliable as was Duhart at her peak. When Curry employs a zone defense, the Boilers defend the paint adequately. Against Purdue’s man-to-man, however, a post player can consistently beat her defender to the basket without having to worry about any Boiler rotating over or otherwise helping on defense. From the floor, the Wildcats connected on 62% of their first-half shots – not surprising, as most of these attempts came off open looks. After the break, a combination of less Northwestern patience and more Purdue defensive intensity was responsible for lowering the Wildcats’ field-goal percentage. The visitors ended up hitting exactly half of their shots from behind the three-point line (7-of-14) and from the floor overall (22-for-44). Northwestern committed 18 turnovers, 11 of which were credited as Purdue steals.
After the first 20 minutes, each team had pulled down exactly 12 boards. As the Boilers stepped up their level of play in the second half, they were able to soundly out-rebound the Cats, and finished with 32 caroms to Northwestern’s 20. Emily Heikes came off the bench to grab a game-high 7 boards for the hosts. In a sad commentary on her teammates’ level of play in comparison to her own, the sophomore forward was able to nab those 7 rebounds in only 16 minutes of court time. Starting posts Mary Jo Noon and Lindsey Hicks, meanwhile, contributed a total of 4 caroms in the 48 minutes they combined to log.
According to radio color commentator Jane Schott, you can gauge a team’s focus by looking at its percentage from the charity stripe. If this is truly the case, Thursday’s 65% success rate from the line was one more indication of Purdue’s lack of intensity. Despite the 22-of-34 effort turned in by the team as a whole, Mary Jo Noon, Sabrina Keys, and Sharika Webb were each perfect from the stripe.
Despite looking a step or two slow and playing with little intensity, the Boilers did manage an excellent assist/turnover ratio of 13:9. The perimeter players opened up the low block with ball reversal and skip passes much more effectively than had been the case against Ohio State.
Lindsey Hicks’s shooting touch has stuck around for a while, and Lindsey was hitting her long-range jumpers extremely well Thursday. Defensively, however, Hicks took a step backwards, as she did not appear to be as aggressive as she had been in the last few contests. In all, Lindsey recorded 9 points (3-of-5 field-goal attempts, 3-of-6 free throws), 3 rebounds, and a turnover.
Immediately after halftime, Shereka Wright played a key role in the 14-0 Purdue surge that put the game out of reach. At other times, Shereka let the game come to her, and didn’t force anything. With about 13 minutes left in the contest, she fought for a rebound under the basket, fell, and landed on the wrist she had fractured in a previous game. As Wright got up, she was in obvious pain. Not surprisingly, she played very sparingly thereafter. On the night, Shereka had 11 points (3-of-7 FG, 1-of-1 from three-point range, 4-of-8 FT), 3 rebounds, 5 assists, 1 block, and 2 steals to 1 turnover.
Mary Jo Noon experienced her match-up nightmare as she went one-on-one with Sarah Kwasinski, a center not only about as tall as Noon but much quicker around the basket. Mary Jo seemed unsure about following Sarah out beyond the paint, and Kwasinski was able to score from the 15-foot range while facing little, if any, defensive pressure from Noon. Mary Jo did display excellent shot selection. She did not force any attempts, and each of her three field-goal tries was a layup she hit after getting past her defender. On the night, Noon amassed 8 points (3-of-3 FG, 2-of-2 FT), 1 rebound, and 2 turnovers.
Beth Jones was one of the few Boilermakers who put in a complete effort and contributed in every facet of the game. Beth’s field-goal attempts all came from the perimeter as she hung out on the wing and punished the Wildcats for forgetting about her. At the end of the evening, Beth’s line featured 14 points (5-of-8 FG, 4-of-7 treys), 1 rebound, 3 assists, and 2 steals.
Erika Valek won the “box score stuffer” trophy for the night by recording an entry in every single column. Valek showed she has taken the role of "scoring point guard" to heart as she attempted 7 more shots from the floor than did the next-closest Boiler. Erika frequently demonstrated her ability to wheel and deal in the lane as she freed herself up for a jumper without looking to pass at all. Since Valek has proven herself to be an unselfish player, it can safely be assumed that her decision to assume more of the scoring load was inspired by the lackluster play of her teammates. To her game-high 18 points (7-of-15 FG, 1-of-2 treys, 3-of-6 FT), Erika added 4 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 blocked shot, and 4 steals to 3 turnovers.
Had Emily Heikes not been charged with four fouls, she would almost certainly have logged more minutes than the 16 she managed to play on the night. Emily was easily the most aggressive Boilermaker on the court as she “mixed it up” down low. She did not look to score much, however, and only connected on one of her four attempts from the floor. The field goal she made was a pull-up jumper off the dribble, a shot rarely seen from her before Thursday. Heikes also went 1-for-2 from the free-throw line. Her primary job was to grab rebounds, and she came through with a game-high 7 boards. Emily also recorded a steal.
As reported in a recent newspaper article on Sharika Webb, the freshman is just now beginning to understand the level of effort and consistency that is required of her in practice and in games. Thursday, it appeared as if Webb has begun to make some of the on-court adjustments expected of her. When Sharika was on defense, she kept up continuous pressure on her “man”, and stayed in front of the Wildcat instead of gambling on making a steal or other big play. Webb’s strength allows her to both drive to the basket and fight on the low block, and Sharika’s efforts to make things happen on the offensive end were rewarded with several opportunities to score from the charity stripe. Sharika’s overall improvement from earlier contests yielded a line of 6 points (0-of-3 FG, 0-of-1 from three-point range, 6-of-6 FT), 2 rebounds, an assist, and 2 turnovers.
Missy Taylor, who couldn’t find her range, failed to connect on any of her 3 attempts from the floor. Two of these shots came from behind the arc. Missy did look comfortable in the offense as she moved the ball well. On her most impressive sequence, Taylor stole the ball, started up court, and then fed a streaking Erika Valek a beautiful transition pass for an easy deuce. Missy ended up with 2 rebounds, 2 assists, and 2 steals.
Carol Duncan appears to be thinking rather than reacting. Her propensity to be called for fouls certainly has something to do with this, but Carol appeared to be too tentative. Instead of aggressively going after the ball, for example, she reacted too slowly to her opportunities. Her only shot of the night, a put-back of a silky smooth offensive rebound she grabbed, produced Duncan’s two points Thursday. Carol pulled down a total of 3 rebounds in her 10 minutes of playing time.
Sabrina Keys saw four minutes of action and redeemed herself quite well by playing hard as she looked to score. Keys is large enough and fast enough to defend quick post players extremely well. Like Duncan, however, she often appears to be thinking rather than reacting. Sabrina finished with 2 points (0-of-1 FG, 2-of-2 FT) and 2 rebounds.
Brianna Howard was put in for the final two minutes. In that time, she grabbed a rebound, drove the length of the court, and then was hammered when she attempted to lay the ball in. It seemed as if Howard was thinking she might not have another opportunity to score this season if she passed, so she needed to make the most of her rare opportunity not only to play, but to shoot. Brianna split the resulting pair of free throws for her one point on the night, and also got credit for the rebound that started the possession.
With about ten minutes to go, the members of the Gold Mine started a chant of "We want Hannah, we want Hannah." With 2 minutes to play, Curry responded by inserting Anderson into the game. Hannah, who is rehabilitating a torn ACL, appeared to be thrilled as she made her season debut as a player. If her sock choice was any indication, the appearance was the last thing in the world Anderson was expecting. Although she didn’t otherwise dent the box score, Hannah displayed great intensity during her time on the court.
In a post-game interview, Kristy Curry said that she wasn’t happy with her team’s first-half performance, but was proud of the way the squad played and responded in the final twenty minutes. Curry, however, appeared to be much more upset at her charges’ lackadaisically sloppy effort down the stretch than she had been before the intermission. During one timeout, the little stools reserved for her charges remained untouched as Kristy kept the Boilers around her and immediately began berating the women. Although Purdue had a February 9 bye looming before visiting Penn State next Thursday, Curry had been quoted prior to the Wildcats’ visit as saying that her players would be practicing Sunday, as they were not yet mature enough to be allowed more than one day off in any given week. Curry obviously knows her team’s psyche extremely well, as Thursday’s game certainly bore out her fears about the Boilers’ collective maturity.
After the referees and umpires assigned to Iowa’s and Ohio State’s most recent visits to Mackey seemed unable to recognize double dribbles or traveling violations, Thursday’s crew represented a breath of fresh air. The team of Bob Trammell, Tina Napier, and Sue Blauch did an excellent job.
The attendance was a rather modest 6786. By and large, those fans on hand were quiet, perhaps because many were wondering whether alien zombies had invaded the Boilermakers’ bodies or if the entire team had just come down with the flu.
At the end of the season, nobody remembers what the games looked like, just whether they were won or lost. With the win, Purdue remained one game behind Penn State and in sole possession of second place in the conference. Curry and her assistants will, no doubt, be at their "teaching and preaching" best these next few days as the staff endeavors to prepare the Boilers for next Thursday’s showdown with Rene Portland’s club in Happy Valley.
Game Ball: Hannah Anderson