Big Ten Tournament – Second Round
Wolverine has become a staple of Purdue’s post-season diet recently. After Friday’s match-up with Michigan, Kristy Curry’s club has now faced Sue Guevara’s squad on either the second or third day of each of the last four Big 10 tournaments. Despite this apparent familiarity, the Boilermakers couldn’t be sure which version of the Maize and Blue would take the Conseco Fieldhouse floor. Would it be the “good twin” Michigan that went 9-2 in pre-conference play, defeating tough opponents en route to earning the country’s #6 RPI rating? Or would it be the “evil twin” Michigan whose league worst 3-13 record reflected one particularly ignominious defeat in which co-cellar-dweller Northwestern had been allowed to score 31 unanswered points?
On March 6, good twin had shown up and dispatched 6th-seeded Illinois by an 83-59 count. Shortly after Friday’s opening tip, however, it was clear that evil twin was in the building. Michigan appeared extremely hesitant on offense and a step slow on defense. Even as set plays were breaking down, however, Stephanie Gandy was keeping the #11 seed in the game by scoring on one-on-one drives. Once Purdue adjusted and assigned a speedy defender to Gandy, the Wolverines were left with few options. The Boilers, meanwhile, were playing excellent team ball. By the first media timeout, all but one of Curry’s starters had contributed points to the #3 seed’s 9-6 advantage. Purdue extended the lead by taking advantage of Michigan’s slow, inexperienced backcourt throughout the evening. The Vegas Gold and Black forced turnovers at will simply by trapping the ball. Once the Wolverines got into an offensive set, the Boilers collapsed on the Michigan posts, and generally forced a poor shot or a turnover. By halftime, the team from West Lafayette had built a 35-23 edge with balanced scoring. Although no Boiler had reached double figures, each of Purdue’s six key players (the starters, plus Emily Heikes) had at least four points.
Purdue put the hammer down at the start of the second half. While Erika Valek ended up the game’s high scorer, Mary Jo Noon and Shereka Wright each contributed a dozen points to the victors’ cause. With 14 minutes to go, the Boilers had pulled out to a comfortable 16-point lead (46-30). By substituting liberally, Curry used the remainder of the contest to rest her starters and give her freshmen playing time. The Wolverines could not take advantage of the youngest Boilers’ inexperience, and trailed by as many as 24 points before falling by a score of 72-50.
Comments on Specific Aspects of the Game:
Purdue hit 47% of its attempts from the field, including a scorching 64% of its three-point tries. The high rate of success from behind the arc may have been attributable to the Wolverines’ utter failure to get out and defend the Boilers’ outside shooters. In contrast to its performance in many previous contests, the offense appeared to be in rhythm most of the night as each of Curry’s charges contributed positively and played unselfish team ball.
The Wolverines’ 33% clip from the floor included a 14% success rate from behind the three-point line. The Boilers took advantage of this dismal outside shooting by packing the paint and double-teaming the Michigan posts, particularly Jennifer Smith. Subjected to the “Mary Jo” treatment, Smith initially reacted by rushing up poor shots, as Noon often does when confronted with this strategy. When the Wolverines attempted to bring the ball up the court, they were often slowed by the Purdue defense. Repeatedly forced to contend with “short” shot clocks, Michigan committed a total of 15 turnovers, 7 of which were credited as Purdue steals.
As did the scoring, this category featured a total team effort on Purdue’s part. The victors outrebounded the Wolverines, 43-34, as 9 of the 11 Boilers to see the court grabbed at least one board each. Shereka Wright and Mary Jo Noon tied for team honors with 8 caroms apiece.
When a game turns into a blowout, most players attack the basket (and each other) with a bit less gusto than would be displayed in a closer contest. Consequently, few fouls are whistled, and few free throws are awarded. On Friday, Purdue connected on 82% of its charity tosses, but only shot 11. Heck, Shereka Wright alone often attempts that many in one half. Beth Jones and Erika Valek were perfect from the stripe, each going 2-for-2 on the night.
The fact that 18 of the Boilers’ 28 field goals were assisted indicates an effective offensive effort. Although Purdue also had 15 turnovers, at least 4 of those miscues occurred when a point guard overthrew her “man” on a fast break. As is often the case, the coaching staff appeared to approve of these turnovers, as the errors indicated that the squad was pushing the tempo. For most of the night, the Boilers were in complete control on the offensive end, able to wait patiently until the high-percentage shot opened up.
As is so often the case when her teammates are scoring well, Shereka Wright seemed content to switch roles from “team star” to “best supporting player”. Perhaps because she knew she could always score if she needed to, Shereka spent most of her time working on such things as snaring rebounds and dishing off for assists. Since the Boilers played the nightcap on the tournament’s second day, every other participant had taken the Conseco court at least once before Purdue finally saw action. Seeing all eleven Big 10 teams within a two-day span allows an observer to compare athletes more easily than is possible during the regular season. It is my impression that Shereka, easily the league’s speediest player with the ball, gets from the top of the key to the basket in a fraction of the time of her closest competitor. What is more, only Minnesota’s Lindsay Whalen comes anywhere close to Shereka’s level of all-around play. In a performance worthy of an All-Big 10 first-teamer, Shereka ended up with 12 points (3-of-10 field-goal attempts, 1-of-1 from three-point range, 5-of-7 free-throw tries), 8 rebounds, 4 assists, 1 block, 2 steals, and 0 turnovers.
Some eyebrows were raised when Erika Valek was named to the coaches’ all-league first team. On Friday, the point guard was able to demonstrate what the bench bosses had seen in her. The role of shooting guard also suits Erika, who switches over to the “2” when Sharika Webb takes the court alongside her. The Wolverines apparently didn’t believe Valek would try to score, as she was often left wide open behind the arc. The Maize and Blue defense also frequently fell asleep at the wheel, allowing Erika to take the ball coast to coast by threading her way through the motionless Michiganders. As might be expected when one of the best players in the conference is not guarded, Valek was able to post monster numbers -- a game-high 19 points (7-of-14 FG, 3-of-4 treys, 2-of-2 FT), 5 rebounds, and an assist to 4 turnovers.
Mary Jo Noon has struggled against Jennifer Smith, Michigan’s 6’4” center, in the past. On this particular evening, however, Mary Jo defended the Wolverines’ posts extremely well, scrapped for rebounds as she mixed it up on the low block, and also had an excellent offensive game. After throwing up prayers in several recent outings, Mary Jo used superior positioning and shot selection to get her points Friday. Noon even put the ball on the floor and took it to the hole. Perhaps because they were stunned to see Mary Jo employ such a move, Guevara’s charges didn’t react to it, allowing Noon to score an uncontested bucket en route to recording 12 points (6-of-11 FG), 8 rebounds, a blocked shot, and an assist to 2 turnovers.
Lindsey Hicks had one of her more complete games as a Boilermaker. Although Hicks is a forward, she often initiates the offense, as she receives the ball at the top of the key on almost every Purdue possession. On Friday, she made excellent decisions -- taking the shot when undefended, finding an open teammate when guarded. When the Wolverines had the ball, Lindsey was one of the Boilers most responsible for disrupting Michigan’s inside attack. In all, Hicks had 6 points (3-of-7 FG, 0-of-1 from three-point range), 4 rebounds, 2 steals, a blocked shot, and 5 assists to 1 turnover.
Beth Jones was the one Boiler the Wolverines appeared to take seriously as a three-point threat. As a result, Jones did not attempt many shots, but did indicate that her touch had returned as she connected on 2 of her 3 three field-goal attempts, all of which were taken from behind the arc. Beth also nailed her two free throw attempts for a total of 8 points on the night. As always, Jones played her brand of tenacious defense and was remarkably consistent on both sides of the ball. In addition to her points, Beth notched 2 assists and 2 turnovers.
Emily Heikes continues to make solid contributions in every game. Action in the Big 10 tournament is even more physical than is generally allowed in the regular season. Friday, this fact played to Emily’s strength (pun intended). Heikes appears most happy when she can bang around under the basket. Emily did most of her damage, including all of her scoring, in the first half. After the break, her freshman teammates took many of the minutes she would normally have played. Emily still finished with 8 points (4-of-7 FG), 5 rebounds, and a steal.
In January and February, there was a great deal of fretting over the play of the freshman class. Sharika Webb, the recipient of much of this hand wringing, appears to have turned a corner. Now a solid contributor on the court, Sharika played a good game Friday, even though she did make a couple of typical freshman mistakes. The allotment of more and more time to the literal 1-2 combination of Sharika and Erika gives the Boilers an extremely fast backcourt composed of two excellent ball handlers. Furthermore, the decision frees Valek from worrying about running the offense, allowing her to score at will. Webb, who sees the court as well as anyone, is beginning to tailor each pass to allow its intended recipient a good chance to actually catch the rock. She generally seems to feel that her job is to get the ball to a starter and, thus, to keep the offensive flow going. At the end of Friday’s game, Purdue’s lineup featured five freshmen. With no upperclassmen to dish off to, Sharika finally looked for her own shot, and nailed a trey. In her twenty minutes, Sharika recorded 3 points (1-of-2 FG, 1-of-1 from behind the arc), 2 rebounds, a blocked shot, and 3 assists to 4 turnovers.
Although Missy Taylor did not connect on either of her two field-goal attempts (one each from two-point range and from beyond the arc), she made some solid contributions during her 14 minutes on the court. On what might have been her best play of the night, Taylor made an extremely convincing shot fake on the high block, only to zip a pass to a wide-open Mary Jo Noon underneath the basket for one of Missy’s 2 assists. Taylor also grabbed 3 rebounds while committing one turnover.
Mary Jo’s early foul trouble brought Carol Duncan off the bench, and Duncan’s subsequent strong play earned the freshman some second-half court time. Attacking the boards aggressively, Carol pulled down three rebounds in her 11 total minutes. Two of her caroms were offensive boards that she turned into put-backs for her 4 points on the night. On defense, Duncan looked to be more comfortable than she had in the past. Overall, she redeemed herself quite well as she logged 4 points (2-of-3 FG), 3 rebounds, a steal, and a turnover.
Sabrina Keys and Brianna Howard played the final 4 and 2 minutes of the game, respectively. Keys did not otherwise dent the box score, while Howard grabbed one rebound. The two freshmen did, however, help Purdue reverse its tendency to allow opposing teams to make up ground in the final seconds of games which afforded Curry the luxury of emptying her bench. Against Michigan, every Boiler who participated was able to maintain the Old Gold and Black’s high level of play.
Curry employed an excellent game strategy by mixing things up enough defensively to completely befuddle the Wolverines and prevent Michigan from using its bevy of excellent, experienced posts to gain advantage. Much to the dismay of the Purdue band, Kristy did not give Hannah Anderson any court time. Curry did, however, find minutes for each remaining Boiler. Because the margin was so large, she was able to run through a wide variety of different offensive and defensive sets, and also played mix-and-match with her lineup throughout the course of the contest.
After watching the referees and umpires who worked the first six games of the tournament, it was evident that things could have been much, much worse for the Boilers. The crew overseeing the Purdue-Michigan game was one of Friday’s best, but Lisa Mattingly, Bob Trammell, and Barb Smith did share their peers’ propensity to allow extremely physical play under the basket. The whistle for “over the back” is now heard only slightly more frequently than is the call of the dodo or the passenger pigeon.
Although the announced attendance was 5743, there were certainly far fewer folks in the stands by the end of the game – or at any given point during the day. Each Big Ten school has a section in the lower bowl, but only Purdue’s allotment of seats was full when the final buzzer sounded. The Mackey Arena regulars who hold up yellow signs that spell out such sayings as “WE BELIEVE” and “GO BOILERS” took their customary position next to the band, and may have helped Curry’s squad feel that Conseco Fieldhouse had indeed turned into “Mackey South”.
Before the tournament began, Curry studied the brackets and seedings. She then audibly worried about meeting Illinois in the second round. The sixth-seeded Fighting Illini were “expected” to win Thursday’s opening-round game against #11 seed Michigan, and a rematch with Purdue would have forced the Boilers to beat Theresa Grentz’s club for the third time in the 2002-03 season. When the Wolverines won, this particular fear was put to rest.
Curry now faces a similar situation in the semifinal round, however. When #7 seed Iowa defeated second-seeded Minnesota in Friday’s third game, the possibility of Purdue’s avenging January’s loss to the Golden Gophers was put to rest. Curry must now convince her charges to take seriously the challenge of a team over which the Boilers already own two victories this season, including last Sunday’s 78-68 triumph in Iowa City.
An additional concern is that although the Hawkeye players may not be as talented as their Gopher counterparts, Iowa’s coach is second to none as a strategist. Lisa Bluder will, no doubt, come up with better ways to stymie Purdue’s game plan than Pam Borton ever could have. Although the Boilers will be favored Sunday, they will have their hands full.
Game Balls: The freshman class (Sharika Webb, Missy Taylor, Carol Duncan, Sabrina Keys, and Brianna Howard)