Big 10 Championship Game
Isn't it just like a lady to overpack? To a woman, the Purdue Boilermakers left West Lafayette last week with clothes that would go unworn in Indianapolis. The superfluous outfits were their black “away” uniforms. For the first time in Big 10 Tournament history, the #3 seed was able to don its home whites for three games. Kristy Curry’s charges barely broke a sweat in either Friday’s victory over Michigan or Sunday’s triumph over Iowa. In both cases, Purdue had benefited from playing an opponent that had just expended a huge amount of energy in knocking off a higher seed. Meanwhile, fourth-seeded Ohio State had disposed of regular-season champion Penn State relatively easily in their semifinal round. Monday’s championship tilt thus marked the Boilers’ only tournament clash with a rival that was deep, talented, playing well, and not utterly exhausted from its last game. The Buckeyes’ roster features agile, mobile posts LaToya Turner and Courtney Coleman, deadeye outside shooters DiDi Reynolds and Caity Matter, and quick, penetrating point guard Kim Wilburn. In both of the Bucks’ and Boilers’ regular-season match-ups, the score had remained close before the home team squeaked out a win.
Although all signs had pointed to a “gym-dandy” of a championship game, Monday’s contest began as if it might end up just another Boiler blowout victory. After Coleman opened the scoring, Purdue ran off the next five points. Ohio State head coach Jim Foster is renowned for employing a multitude of junk defenses. For the first third of the title clash, however, the Buckeyes appeared to be running a “no” defense. Actually, the scheme being employed was the triangle-and-two that had worked so well in Columbus last month. On Monday, the Boilers were prepared to counter the strategy. Knowing that Mary Jo Noon would be left alone under the basket, her teammates regularly exploited opportunities to get her the ball. With other Boilers joining Noon in firing on all cylinders, Purdue enjoyed a 22-14 lead after 13 minutes.
Then the Buckeyes roared back into the game as they switched to another defensive scheme and Wilburn began to penetrate and create opportunities for her teammates. The momentum decisively shifted toward Foster’s club when Wilburn was in-bounding the ball and saw that none of the Boilers were facing her as they covered their "men". Kim deliberately threw a pass off Noon's back, grabbed the ball, and hit a quick layup. On the Buckeyes’ next possession, the Boilers lost Caity Matter in transition. Matter is virtually automatic when she doesn't have a hand directly in her face, and her three-pointer cut the margin to two (27-25) with 3:17 remaining in the half. When OSU next had the ball, several players went up for the rebound as a shot was launched. When some of the combatants lost their footing, Shereka Wright was knocked to the ground. After cushioning Coleman's fall, Wright lay motionless for a few minutes. Shereka was helped off the court, but returned a minute later with a renewed sense of purpose. She combined with Noon to score the next 5 points. Matter, however, answered the Boilers’ mini-run with two more baskets from "downtown'". Caity’s final trey of the period gave OSU its first lead since Coleman’s opening deuce. At the break, the Bucks took a 33-32 advantage into the locker room.
The chess game began in the second half. Mary Jo was dominant in the paint against Turner and Coleman. For all their athleticism and speed, LaToya and Courtney were pushed away from the hoop with ease. To counter Noon, Foster brought in little-used Erika Christenson. Although Erika is not a threat to score, her height (6’4”) and width suggested she had the potential to neutralize Mary Jo. The Purdue staff countered by having Beth Jones sacrifice offense in order to concentrate on dogging three-point threat Matter. By playing off Wright, the Buckeyes dared Shereka to shoot from outside. The Boilers echoed that strategy by preventing Wilburn from penetrating but ignoring Kim when she was on the perimeter. During the first five minutes of the period, the Buckeyes gave up the lead when Shereka took their dare and hit a three-pointer. OSU then reclaimed the advantage on the strength of two Matter treys.
Although they were drawing fouls on the scarlet-clad Buckeyes, the Boilers could only make about half of their free throws. This failure to capitalize from the line contributed to the 52-49 deficit Purdue faced as the game entered its final quarter. With seven minutes to go, Noon knotted the score at 55-all by connecting from the high block as the shot clock ticked down. Shereka Wright then took over the game. The junior noticeably increased her level of play, and seemed to be everywhere -- driving to the basket and making the most improbable of shots one minute, snaring a rebound amid a gaggle of Buckeyes the next. She scored six straight Purdue points to give the Vegas Gold and Black a 61-57 lead. After the Boilers regained possession, the entire Ohio State team collapsed on Wright as she drove the lane, and Shereka found Lindsey Hicks completely alone behind the arc. By nailing the shot, Hicks gave the Boilers a six-point edge with 2:32 left.
The Buckeyes weren't about to lie down, however. Wilburn finally looked to score, and combined two penetration drives with a desperation trey to bring the Scarlet and Gray within one point with 35 seconds to go. With eighteen seconds left, Wright was given two free throws. After making the first to widen Purdue’s lead to 67-65, Shereka missed the second. The Buckeyes grabbed the rebound with a chance to tie or win. Foster, who elected not to call a timeout, later explained that he had not wanted to give the Boilers time to set up in their defensive positions. It was here that inexperience caught up to the Bucks, who had trouble getting anything going before heaving a last-second three-point attempt that sailed out of bounds without hitting the backboard or rim. The game was over -- or was it? After a brief confab, the referee and umpires decided to put 0.3 seconds back on the clock and award possession to Purdue. Even though Ohio State’s only hope was to deflect the inbound pass into the basket, Curry took a timeout before Wilburn apparently knocked Lindsey Hicks’s toss out of play. As the clock went to 0:00 once more, the officials decided that the Boilermakers could finally celebrate a hard-fought 67-65 victory.
Comments on Specific Aspects of the Game
Purdue was a two-headed monster Monday, with Mary Jo Noon and Shereka Wright combining to score 38 of Purdue's 67 points. Overall, the Boilers shot extremely well as they hit 47% of their field-goal attempts, including 50% of those launched from behind the arc. This efficiency reflected the fact that the Boilers weren't flustered by any of the Bucks’ numerous defensive wrinkles.
From the floor, Ohio State shot at a 38.3% clip overall, which included a nearly identical 37.5% success rate on three-point tries. For most of the night, Purdue used a box-and-one. As Beth Jones shadowed Matter, Beth’s teammates remained in a zone. The Boilers took advantage of Wilburn’s lack of proficiency from outside as they essentially used five players to guard four Buckeyes during most of OSU’s possessions.
By out-rebounding the Buckeyes by a 41-38 margin, Purdue demonstrated that its early-season form on the boards is returning. Despite the fact that Shereka and Mary Jo shared game honors as each grabbed 11 caroms, all but one of the Boilers who saw the floor corralled at least one stray shot.
Had the Boilers merely duplicated their average performance from the charity stripe, they would have put the game out of reach relatively easily. Perhaps Purdue had a perverse death wish, or just wanted to keep things interesting. Whatever the reason, Curry’s charges struggled mightily at the line, connecting on only 10 of their 22 attempts (45%).
What poor free-throw shooting almost taketh away, good decision-making giveth. The Boilers had a positive 12:10 assist/turnover ratio Monday. Because Purdue’s perimeter players still have troubles feeding bounce passes to the post, most of the miscues resulted from knee-level entry passes to the “bigs”. Overall, however, the women in the backcourt acquitted themselves well.
Before the tournament began, Shereka Wright was announced as a first-team selection to both the coaches’ and media’s All-Big Ten honor squads. Yet neither group of voters unanimously acclaimed Wright as one of the “first five”. While this slight was perhaps the smallest of chips, Curry nevertheless attempted to place it on Shereka's thin shoulder. Wright, who decided to let her game do the talking, was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player on the strength of her play in Purdue's three victories. When the game was on the line, Shereka discarded the chip in order to put the team on her shoulders. On Monday, what was most impressive about her game was Wright’s ability to either find open teammates (when Ohio State committed too many defenders to stopping her) or to penetrate and finish if left relatively unmolested. Shereka ended up with 19 points (6-of-17 field-goal attempts, 1-of-1 from behind the three-point line, 6-of-11 free-throw tries), 11 rebounds, a blocked shot, 2 steals, and 6 assists to 3 turnovers.
While Shereka was the best player for the tournament, the best player in the championship game was Mary Jo Noon. Indeed, Mary Jo’s performance was perhaps her best as a Boilermaker. In the past, Noon has had troubles with mobile, athletic posts. On Monday, she was very much the equal of Coleman and Turner. When Mary Jo received the ball on the low block, she got to the basket by using her superior strength to push players out of her way as if she were a bowling ball knocking down pins. Noon also defended extremely well, rebounded with authority, and passed out of double-teams to Boilers who were open on the perimeter. In a unique development, Mary Jo and Shereka shared both game-high honors as rebounders and team laurels as scorers. Noon connected on 9 of 16 shots from the field and 1 of 3 free-throw attempts for her 19 points. To her 11 caroms, she added a blocked shot, a steal, and a turnover.
Lindsey Hicks is now playing the best ball of her career. She capped an extremely strong tournament with what may have been her best outing of the season. Lindsey made solid contributions in every facet of the game. She battled for rebounds, and scored on several put- backs of Boiler misfires. The three-pointer Hicks hit with less than three minutes to go was perhaps the biggest bucket of the night. In all, Lindsey recorded 11 points (4-of-5 FG, 2-of-3 treys, 1-of-2 FT), 5 rebounds, an assist, and a turnover.
Beth Jones should still be sore after being assigned to keep up with Matter screen for screen. Beth did an excellent job forcing her way past Caity’s teammates. Matter did score a game-high 21 points. As has often happened this season to players Beth was assigned to cover, however, Matter appeared to become more frustrated and less effective as the night wore on. Sacrificing her offense for the good of the team, Jones logged 2 points (1-of-2 FG, 0-of-1 from three-point range, 0-of-1 FT), a rebound, and a turnover.
Erika Valek, who has been bothered by a flare-up in her knee, appeared somewhat slower than had been the case in earlier contests. Valek still got the ball to open teammates. Particularly noteworthy was Erika’s ability to find Mary Jo Noon after ball reversal. On the All-Tournament team, Valek joined Penn State’s Tanisha Wright, OSU’s Matter and Wilburn, and -- of course – Purdue’s Wright. In Monday’s solid overall performance, Erika notched 13 points (5-of-10 FG, 2-of-4 treys, 1-of-2 FT), 3 rebounds, a steal, and 5 assists to 3 turnovers.
After Emily Heikes was less effective than usual, it was revealed that the sophomore was suffering from stomach flu. Even when ill, Emily makes an impact on the boards. Her most impressive play occurred early in the game. She stepped into a passing lane to steal the ball, then stumbled, bumbled, and rumbled the length of the court before nailing a layup. Emily finished with 3 points (1-of-3 FG, 1-of-3 FT), 4 rebounds, a steal, and a turnover.
After Shereka was flattened and went to the bench, Missy Taylor was inserted for one minute of the first half. Once Taylor left the court, the freshman never returned to the lineup.
Carol Duncan managed to grab a rebound in her 4 minutes of action.
After contributing 8 points to the semifinal victory over Iowa, Sharika Webb returned Monday to her customary roles of bringing the ball up the court and otherwise moving the “rock”. Although Webb missed her two field-goal attempts (one from two-point range, one from behind the arc), she did pull down 2 rebounds.
Sabrina Keys, Brianna Howard, and Hannah Anderson did not play.
The Boilers sure didn’t make Kristy Curry’s job any easier. As her starters developed foul trouble, Curry made strategic substitutions designed to maintain momentum while preventing disqualifications of her key players. The Boilers had an answer for OSU’s posts, and particularly disrupted the Buckeyes’ offensive flow with the timing of such counter-strategies as traps and presses. Although Jim Foster’s introduction of Southeastern Conference basketball to the Big 10 has been compared to bringing civilization to the heathens, the best coach in the building was on the Purdue bench Monday.
The crew in black-and-white-striped jerseys exemplified the concept of “the good, the bad, and the ugly”. Because the Buckeyes committed 20 fouls to the Boilers’ 18, each team appeared to be equally upset with the officiating. Thus, the inability of Lisa Mattingly, June Courteau, and Bob Trammell to bring their "A" game Monday did not appear to afford either side an advantage.
The attendance was 7847 for the session. With the exception of one island of OSU supporters, the arena was a sea of gold and black. Fans of both the Buckeyes and Boilers were extremely loud for most of the night.
Purdue has certainly picked a good time to play its best ball of the season. Each Boiler is contributing to a balanced effort, and Curry’s troops seemed to gel as a team during the tournament. For seven straight years now, Purdue has won either the Big 10’s regular-season title or tournament crown. The Boilers, currently 26-5, will finish the 2002-03 season with no more than six losses. Already assured of hosting the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament, Curry and her charges now await "Selection Sunday’s" announcement of such specifics as Purdue’s seed, region, and prospective opponents.
Game Ball: Mary Jo Noon