A long, long time ago -- way back in October -- many Purdue supporters received their 2002-03 women’s basketball season tickets. To a truly fanatical fan, the envelope of admission guarantees was the most welcome mail of the year, as it signified that Kristy Curry’s charges would soon be returning to the court after a long seven-month absence. To hold the large solid sheet of cardboard was to grasp infinite possibility. The entire Mackey Arena portion of the schedule was contained within the pastel ducats, each of which represented a potentially thrilling victory for the Old Gold – make that Vegas Gold – and Black. As the campaign progressed, each sheet was whittled down ticket by ticket until – following Thursday evening’s clash with intrastate rival Indiana -- no more remained. As is always the case with a home finale, the night was a bittersweet one. Besides representing the beginning of the end of the season, it featured the traditional Senior Night ceremony. About ten minutes before tip-off, center Mary Jo Noon was saluted by her teammates, the coaches, and the crowd. Then it was back to business as the visiting Hoosiers took the court and the game began
Although Kathi Bennett’s club had faced the Boilers in December’s “Duel in the Dome” and lost a 53-51 squeaker on Shereka Wright’s two last-second free throws, that meeting did not count in the conference standings. Even so, Indiana entered Thursday’s showdown with a 4-10 mark in league play. At about this time last year, however, the Cream and Crimson had a similar record before catching fire and winning 6 straight games, the last of those being the Big 10 tournament championship. Although the Hoosiers are hoping that the same magic will reappear in 2003, their play Thursday suggests that lightning is not going to strike twice for them.
Coach Bennett prides herself on her team’s defensive intensity, and the game did begin as a defensive struggle. The first point of the night, an Erika Valek free throw, did not fall until the clock read 18:04. When the first media timeout was taken, 15:13 remained in the opening half, and Indiana had logged 9 of the 16 points the rivals had combined to register.
Defensively, Purdue’s posts were staying home, never following any Hoosier who wandered to a spot more than 10 feet from the basket. IU was able to take advantage of this by hitting some easy jump shots that helped the visitors extend their advantage to 15-9 by the 13:00 mark. Over the next four minutes, however, three Emily Heikes baskets and a pair of Sharika Webb free throws allowed Purdue to claim a 19-17 lead. Although the Boilers would never trail again, Indiana’s tough defense allowed the Hoosiers to stay within striking distance for the remainder of the half. Purdue’s defensive lapses also helped the visitors’ cause. In the final 38 seconds of the opening stanza, the spectators were treated to a sequence that served as a microcosm of the period. After Curry called her standard "use it or lose it" timeout, the Boilers attempted to set up their final points of the half. IU, however, got out on the outside shooters while preventing interior penetration. With one second left on the shot clock, Beth Jones threw up a desperation attempt that flew far wide of the mark. Apparently believing that the half was over, the Boilers attempted neither to grab the rebound nor to play defense. The Hoosiers seized the resulting opportunity to go out on a 2-against-0 break, but missed two layups before the halftime buzzer finally sounded and allowed Purdue to take a 30-24 lead into the locker room.
As both teams struggled to find the basket, the first two minutes of the second half looked like a replay of the opening moments of the contest. As the half progressed, however, the Hoosiers fell into their patented “Mackey swoon”. Unforced turnovers, poor shot selection, and increasingly porous defense all contributed to Indiana’s steadily increasing deficit. As the visitors’ energy flagged, the hosts had less and less trouble finding the basket. Purdue’s increase in momentum can also be attributed to the spark Missy Taylor provided off the bench. By hustling on rebound opportunities, Taylor continually allowed the Vegas Gold and Black to gain – or retain – possession of the ball. She also made the first Boiler three-pointer of the night. As the second-last media timeout was taken, the score was 56-42 in the home team‘s favor. As Curry took advantage of the opportunity to empty her bench in the final minutes, Purdue kept plugging away for points, while Indiana continued to self-destruct. The final score was 74-48.
Comments on Specific Aspects of the Game
Although their field-goal accuracy (37.3% overall, 37.5% from behind the arc) did not reflect the fact, the Boilers looked much better than they had in other recent outings. Most notable was the passing as the team worked the ball around the perimeter, as well as both into and out of the post. When a Purdue player was double-teamed, she demonstrated a knack for finding an open teammate. One hopes that the overall improvement in offensive flow will soon lead to a corresponding rise in shooting efficiency.
From the floor, Indiana was limited to a ghastly 26% shooting clip, which included a mere 18% success rate from behind the three-point line. The visitors’ sole offensive strategy appeared to be to rush the basket in order to beat the Boilers in transition. Once Purdue’s players realized this, they quickly adjusted, and effectively stopped Bennett’s team.
This category was dead even as each side pulled down 41 boards. In Sunday’s loss at Ohio State, only 4 Boilers were credited with rebounds, so the fact that nine enhanced their carom totals Thursday was particularly encouraging. Mary Jo Noon, designated the Subway "Super Sub" of the game even though she assumed her customary place in the starting lineup, led the Boilers by snaring 8 stray shots.
After hitting at a decent 75% clip from the charity stripe in the opening stanza, Purdue hit all 15 of its second-half attempts to finish with a total success rate of 87% on the night. Mary Jo Noon, Sharika Webb, and Emily Heikes were all perfect from the line.
With the exception of total points scored, the one statistic that best explains the win would be the mere 9 turnovers committed by the hosts. The unforced giveaways that seem to bedevil Purdue away from Mackey were nowhere in evidence within the “friendly confines”. Curry’s club seemed to be running a wider variety of set plays than had been the case in previous contests. In most instances, the designated shooter got a good look at the hoop.
As Mary Jo Noon began her final regular season game in Mackey Arena, she appeared to be forcing things. She rushed up several poorly considered shots, and had trouble hitting from the floor even when she became more selective. Noon also appeared to suffer from the extreme physical play under the basket as she was knocked to the ground on several occasions. She did play with great effort, as demonstrated by her team-best 8 rebounds. Even more notable was her newfound ability to pass out of the double-team. When the Boilers played IU in December, the Hoosiers effectively stopped Purdue’s offense by swarming Mary Jo. When paid such attention Thursday, Mary Jo successfully responded, either by hitting an open teammate for a layup or by getting the ball out to the perimeter. Besides tying her career high by dishing out 3 assists, she recorded 9 points (2-of-12 field-goal attempts, 5-of-5 from the free-throw line), 8 rebounds, a steal, and a turnover.
Shereka Wright logged 26 minutes, far fewer than are typical for her. Although she did not appear to be suffering from any physical aliment, Wright sat for a great deal of the first half. Perhaps Curry just wasn’t interested in seeing the physical Hoosiers beat up on Purdue’s All-American candidate. When Shereka was on the court, she looked very comfortable as she hit both runners in the lane and outside jumpers. She also did a good job of passing out of the double-team to the Boiler who was left open. At the end of the night, her line featured 14 points (4-of-8 FG, 6-of-8 FT), 3 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 turnovers.
Beth Jones had a difficult time finding her stroke. Although she got fairly good looks by running off screens and otherwise getting herself open, most of her shots failed to drop. She played extremely well on defense, however, and did all the other little things that have made her so valuable to the team. Beth finished with 3 points (1-of-7 FG, 1-of-4 three-point attempts), 4 rebounds, a blocked shot, and 3 assists to 1 turnover.
Lindsey Hicks and Kristy Curry were not seeing eye-to-eye on Thursday. Hicks was replaced by Heikes less than two minutes into the second half. When Lindsey was on the court, she got several earfuls from the coaching staff. On one notable occasion, Curry screamed so loudly at Hicks that the coach could be heard over the noise of the crowd. The impetus for such wrath appeared to be Lindsey’s defensive and rebounding efforts, or lack thereof. On offense, the junior did frequently take the ball aggressively to the hoop. As noted by radio announcers Tim Newton and Jane Schott in the post-game wrap-up, Hicks handles the ball quite a lot, yet often (as was the case Thursday) commits no turnovers. On the evening, Lindsey tallied 11 points (3-of-9 FG, 1-of-2 treys, 4-of-5 FT) and 3 rebounds.
After starting at the point, Erika Valek spent several stretches as the shooting guard when Sharika Webb took over the “1” slot. Valek put her recent struggles behind her as she played solidly and improved her performance as the night wore on. Erika used her superior speed to blow by IU’s perimeter players, and was extremely effective when she pushed the tempo and attacked the rim. Erika’s most impressive play of the night started when she picked a Hoosier’s pocket. Valek then kept her dribble while weaving through a host of defenders who were lunging for the ball. After escaping the swarm, Erika streaked to the basket at full throttle, then put on the brakes at the last minute and scored on a well-controlled layup. Besides her team-high 15 points (4-of-9 FG, 0-of-1 from three-point range, 7-of-8 FT), Erika amassed 4 rebounds, 2 steals, and 2 assists to 2 turnovers.
Through no fault or action of her own, Emily Heikes has found herself at the center of a controversy. Because Emily’s consistency has been second only to Wright’s, Kristy Curry is constantly asked why Heikes isn't starting. Curry’s stock answer has been that Emily does play starter's minutes, and that promoting Heikes from the ranks of the reserves would deprive the team of the lift the sophomore supplies by coming off the bench. Since Emily has repeatedly said that she's happy with the status quo, it might be time to let the question rest. Against the extremely physical Hoosiers, Heikes was at an advantage because she has the strength to muscle up shots even when being mugged. She put in another sterling performance Thursday as she shot well, then took advantage of her mobility by getting out in the open court and pressing the Hoosiers. In 22 minutes, Emily notched a career-high 13 points (6-of-10 FG, 1-of-1 FT), 7 rebounds, a blocked shot, and one turnover.
Sharika Webb also played starter's minutes Thursday, logging 23 while alternately relieving “Shereka Senior” and spelling Beth Jones. If Webb’s duties are to play tough defense, run the offense by careful passing, and never, ever look to shoot the ball, then she has completely bought into her role. The only time Sharika even thought about scoring was when the shot clock was winding down and she was absolutely the only option. She then drove to the basket, and was twice fouled when doing so. Webb matches up well with fast perimeter players, and gets steals and blocks with her incredibly quick hands. On the night, she recorded 4 points (0-of-1 FG, 4-of-4 FT), 3 rebounds, a blocked shot, a steal, and one assist to one turnover.
Missy Taylor continues to give glimpses of her potential and "upside". She completely energized the team during her 14 minutes on the court by keeping the ball in play on rebound opportunities and otherwise exhibiting a great deal of hustle. Not surprisingly for a player of her height, Taylor sees the court extremely well. She also handles and passes the ball proficiently. Finally, her shooting form is wonderful, and her release is quick. On the night, Missy picked up 5 points (2-of-3 FG, 1-of-1 trey), 3 rebounds, and an assist.
Carol Duncan, Sabrina Keys, Brianna Howard, and Hannah Anderson each played 2 minutes or fewer. Sabrina and Carol each committed a foul, while Duncan also pulled down a rebound. Although Anderson was charged with a turnover, the members of this foursome generally took care of the ball as they took advantage of their time on the court by playing hard.
With the victory, Kristy Curry not only reached the 100-win mark more quickly than had any other coach in the program’s history, but needed fewer games to join the “Century Club” than did such luminaries as Pat Summitt, Geno Auriemma, Jody Conradt, and Rene Portland. Because Curry took over at a school that had just won a national championship, however, she gets little credit for her accomplishments. It's a shame that her rich inheritance is constantly brought up, yet her ability to win with exceedingly short benches for two of her first three seasons is never highlighted. On Thursday, Curry appeared quite unhappy with her posts’ play for a large portion of the time. After the game, however, she said that she was most pleased with the posts’ ability to pass out of the double-team, a skill that had taken four years to instill. There was no mention of any rift between Curry and her Indiana counterpart, who have officially kissed and made up after last year's “Every little girl in Indiana now wants to grow up to be a Hoosier” tiff. Still, an observer couldn't help but notice that the Boilers employed a pressing defense much longer than might have been the case in a 25-point blowout against another team.
The game was extremely physical, and the officials watched passively as players from both teams absolutely clobbered each other under the basket. Neither coach seemed too concerned, perhaps because the refusal to blow the whistle was equally apparent on both ends. The crew’s definition of traveling apparently differed from the one held by the majority of the audience, as the chronic failure to call “steps” against the Hoosiers drew the most audible displeasure from the Mackey faithful.
The announced attendance of 9819 appeared to be an honest figure, as the arena was quite full. No Purdue crowd ever tires of watching the Boilers blow out the Hoosiers, and Thursday’s audience was generally a loud and rowdy one.
With the win, Purdue remained undefeated in Mackey for the season and clinched at least a second-place finish in the Big Ten race. There is still a slight hope of tying Penn State for first. To claim a share of the crown, the Boilers need to win at Iowa (a tall order, as they have lost by a combined 24 points in their last two visits to Iowa City), while Wisconsin must win at Penn State. Hey, it could happen. A more likely scenario is that Purdue will receive the #3 seed in the upcoming conference tournament because Minnesota wins the tiebreaker over the Boilers. Assuming the brackets hold up, Purdue would then need to defeat the Golden Gophers in the semifinal round before facing Portland’s Nittany Lions in the championship tilt.
Game Ball: Mary Jo Noon