NCAA Tournament – First Round
Last year, the National Collegiate Athletic Association gave up all pretense of caring about anything but money as the organization put its Division I women's basketball tournament up for bid. Member institutions were invited to tender offers to host first- and second-round games. The winners were the sixteen schools that promised the most money to the NCAA. The Division I Women’s Basketball Committee’s only justification for adopting this new scheme was the belief that attendance would thus improve. “If a college has an entire year to promote the tournament”, went the party line, “many more tickets will be sold than was the case when that school earned a bid on the court, then had less than a week between ‘Selection Sunday’ and the opening weekend of the ‘Big Dance’ in which to drum up enthusiasm.” Of course, which teams would be among the nation’s elite in March was anyone’s guess last summer, and the criticism that greeted the unveiling of the plan has become a steady chorus. One result of the “pay-for-play” scheme has been the phenomenon of the higher-seeded team playing on an admittedly weaker squad’s home court. For example, East Regional #5 seed Boston College needed a last-second buzzer beater to beat #12 seed Old Dominion at ODU’s Constant Center. Although Rutgers has a #4 seed in the Midwest, Georgia’s willingness to break out its bankroll means that the #5 seed Bulldogs will host the Scarlet Knights in second-round action tonight (March 24). While this “purchase plan” is bad enough on the surface, its secondary effect further undermines the integrity of the tournament. It is conceivable, for example, that Oklahoma (19-12) would not have even been in the field of 64 had no games been allotted to the Sooners’ Lloyd Noble Center. It is also possible that the committee believed Sherri Coale’s club deserved the Mideast’s #11, or even #13, seed. Because the #11 club had to visit #6 Colorado (a Big 12 rival of Oklahoma) while the #13 traveled to #4 Penn State, however, the expedient way to “make it all fit” was to allow the Sooners to ride the elevator up to the #10 seed in the region while giving Brigham Young University (#11) and Holy Cross (#13) the shaft. And the NCAA's response to BYU, Holy Cross, and other aggrieved institutions? "If you don't like it, write us a bigger check next time."
Purdue, of course, justified its athletic department's expenditure by earning a #2 seed and being assigned to the East Regional. After Virginia Tech’s Hokies barely squeaked by the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in Saturday afternoon’s Mackey Arena opener, Purdue took on #15 seed Valparaiso in the “nightcap”. After opposing each other in each of the last four seasons, the intrastate rivals had not scheduled a meeting for the 2002-03 campaign. Perhaps, then, it was fate that decreed that the Boilermakers would meet the Crusaders in the tournament.
The drive down Interstate 65 from Valparaiso to West Lafayette is an easy one, and the large contingent of “Valpo” fans that made the trip had plenty to cheer about during the game’s opening minutes. The Boilers came out flat, and committed both a turnover and a foul before scoring their first point. As the first eight minutes were basically all Valpo, the Crusaders demonstrated ever-increasing confidence as their lead grew to nine (18-9). The Boilers finally woke up, however, and turned Valpo into Alpo. Behind Erika Valek's drives and pull-up jump shots, Purdue began to compete. A three-minute 9-0 flurry allowed Kristy Curry’s charges to tie the score at 18-all. After extending the run to 26-4, the Boilers took a 35-22 lead into the locker room at halftime.
During the break, Curry apparently mentioned that Purdue was the school with the 6'5" center, and that Mary Jo Noon’s teammates just might want to take advantage of that fact. As the second half began, the Boilers made a concerted effort to feed the post. Unfortunately, most of the entry passes to Noon produced only turnovers. Because Valpo was also having trouble hanging on to the ball, however, Purdue capitalized on Crusader miscues to score transition baskets. With eight minutes to play, the Vegas Gold and Black had extended the margin to 25 points (59-34). As Curry took advantage of the opportunity to give liberal playing time to her reserves, Purdue’s intensity began to wane, and Valpo began to chip away at the lead. The 61-39 advantage the Boilers enjoyed with 5:33 remaining was down to a 63-51 gap three minutes later. Having seen enough of the five-freshman lineup, Curry re-inserted Beth Jones and Shereka Wright into the game. The juniors’ stabilizing effect allowed the Boilers to score the last three points of the day and win by a final score of 66-51.
Comments on Specific Aspects of the Game
Although they shot at an overall 48% clip from the field, the Boilers only connected on one of their seven three-point attempts on the day. Valparaiso remained in a zone defense for the entire game. Rather than attempt to shoot over the zone, Purdue preferred to attack by penetrating off the dribble and taking layups.
All season long, the Crusaders’ Achilles’ heel has been the inability to take care of the ball. The Boilers won Saturday’s game by capitalizing on this tendency. Of the 23 turnovers charged to Valparaiso, 13 were credited as Purdue steals. The trapping, pressing defense Curry employed for much of the game slowed down the Mid-Continent Conference representatives’ offense and helped limit Valpo to a success rate of 35% from the floor, which included 38% accuracy from behind the arc.
The Boilers took a step backwards in this department. After winning the battle of the glass in each of their six previous outings, Curry’s charges grabbed 31 caroms while allowing the Crusaders to collect 36. These numbers confirmed the general impression that the players in Vegas Gold and Black were not only a step slow but failed to fight for positioning under the boards. Sharika Webb led the hosts with 6 rebounds.
The Boilers seem to be in a free-throw funk. After performing extremely well at the charity stripe for most of the season, Purdue followed its 10-for-22 showing in the Big Ten Tournament championship game with another sub-60% outing. Shining through Saturday’s 11-of-19 overall effort (58%) were the perfect performances of Webb (1-for-1) and Erika Valek (5-of-5).
As has been the case in other slow starts against inferior teams, the Boilers’ problems seemed more attributable to deficiencies in execution and intensity than to a poor game plan. Perimeter players’ attempts to pass inside were too often “rewarded” with Valparaiso interceptions or Purdue posts’ inability to hold onto the ball. The hosts ended up scoring most of their points on one-on-one drives, and recorded only 13 assists to 15 turnovers on the day.
For the first -- and perhaps last -- time in her career, Mary Jo Noon participated in Purdue's presses by picking up on opposing players around mid-court. Mary Jo must have practiced this maneuver extensively, as she had no problem getting into position. She even brought the ball up the floor after she made an interception and could not find a teammate to pass to. Noon, who had a huge size advantage over each Crusader, was automatic from the low block. Unfortunately, her offensive production was limited by her inability to hang onto entry passes. She was called for a few defensive fouls simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. When coupled with her legitimate hacks, these perceived infractions led to her being disqualified with several minutes still remaining in the game. For the afternoon, Mary Jo had a line of 8 points (4-of-4 field-goal attempts), 4 rebounds, 3 turnovers, and a blocked shot.
Two quick fouls put Lindsey Hicks on the bench early in the first half. She didn't play very much after the intermission, and displayed less fire and intensity than she had shown in recent contests. After the game, it was revealed that a neck injury suffered in a recent practice had limited Lindsey’s effectiveness. In her sixteen minutes, Hicks managed 2 points (1-of-4 FG, 0-of-1 from three-point range), 3 rebounds, a steal, and one assist to two turnovers.
Purdue has designed a new play for Shereka Wright. After the ball is inbounded from under the basket, the post players pass it around the high block before finding Wright all alone down low. The strategy produced a positive outcome each time it was employed. Shereka had more trouble than usual connecting from both from the field and the free-throw line. Even at 75% of her usual effectiveness, however, she was still the most athletic and talented woman on the court. By the end of the afternoon, Shereka had recorded 15 points (5-of-12 FG, 5-of-11 FT), 3 rebounds, a steal, and 2 assists to 2 turnovers.
Although Beth Jones had open looks all day, she couldn't find her stroke as she struggled on the offensive end. Overall, Beth played with less intensity than usual, but did manage to make three steals. She added 2 points (1-of-8 FG, 0-of-5 treys), 1 rebound, an assist, and 2 turnovers.
While the other starters were playing in slow motion, Erika Valek was on fast-forward. Erika was an absolute fireball, and appeared to be everywhere at once. Offensively, she was the team’s leading shot taker -- and maker – from the field. On the other side of the ball, she assisted on the presses and was Purdue's most effective defender. No Crusader has the speed to stop Valek, who penetrated at will. Despite the huge numbers she has put up this season, Erika is not double-teamed very often. Even more surprisingly, she is frequently left totally alone. In an excellent outing, Erika amassed a game-high 23 points (9-of-18 FG, 5-of-5 FT). She also notched 2 rebounds, 4 steals, and 4 assists to 1 turnover.
During the break between academic years, a college basketball player might stay on campus to work on various aspects of her game. If Emily Heikes remains in West Lafayette, she might want to consider signing up for a summer school drama class. She periodically hit the deck in an attempt to draw a charge, only to discover that the officials were not buying her act. Although Hicks was injured after colliding with Heikes in practice, Emily apparently suffered no ill effects from the incident. Instead, she once again performed solidly as she contributed 4 points (2-of-3 FG), 4 rebounds, 2 steals, and an assist.
Early foul problems on the starting posts made it necessary to get Carol Duncan into the game earlier than is typical, and Carol’s strong play kept her on the court for 16 minutes. Duncan was charged with two fouls, but generally did a good job of avoiding the whistle. The freshman exhibited a great deal of energy and effectiveness on both ends of the floor. However, the Boilers on the perimeter didn't even glance at Carol when she was posting up, and the only shot she attempted from the field was a successful put-back of her one offensive rebound. Duncan also missed two free throws as she logged 2 points, 5 total caroms, a blocked shot, and a turnover.
Sharika Webb had a superb game, one of her best as a collegian. Webb demonstrated excellent shot selection as she connected on all three of her field-goal attempts, one of which yielded the Boilers’ only three-point basket of the afternoon. Sharika is getting better at making “catchable” passes, and the speed of her deliveries combines with her court vision to enable her to get the rock to a teammate when -- and where – said teammate needs it. Webb also used her strength and speed to grab rebounds over taller players. In 17 minutes, Sharika recorded 8 points (3-of-3 FG, 1-of-1 from behind the arc, 1-of-1 FT), 4 assists, 3 turnovers, and a team-high six rebounds.
Missy Taylor saw fewer minutes (13) than normal. Perhaps the reason for this was that Curry, who needed Heikes and Duncan on the court, didn't want to have too many reserves in at any one time. Taylor, who did play within both herself and the flow of the offense, is emerging as a force on the defensive end. Missy ended up with 2 points (1-of-1 FG), a rebound, and two steals.
Neither Sabrina Keys nor Brianna Howard could get on track. In her four minutes, Sabrina attempted two shots from the floor, but was short on both. She did grab a rebound. Brianna committed a turnover during the minute she was allotted. When Keys and Howard both missed their defensive assignments on consecutive Valpo possessions, Curry replaced the two freshmen with starters.
Hannah Anderson did not play.
After the game, Kristy Curry explained that her response to Valpo's early lead was to let her players right the ship themselves. Curry remained positive as she stuck to her game plan even though it wasn't being executed particularly well. She also stated that she hadn't wanted to press and trap the over-matched Crusaders, but that Purdue's poor play had dictated the aggressive strategy.
There seems to be a general consensus that the players should decide the outcome of tournament games. By and large, the officials adhered to the agreement by "letting 'em play". The Purdue-Valparaiso game was extremely physical, as were all other first-round contests I saw. In one notable sequence, Boilers and Crusaders were literally diving over each other in an attempt to corral a loose ball, but no foul or “travel” was called.
I'm going to go way out on a limb here and guess that Dasani is the official water of the NCAA Tournament. The presence of the beverage’s logo on every item that contained liquids was only one of the many indications that Mackey had temporarily become an official NCAA venue. While the normally sunken benches and scorer's table were moved up to court level, the inflatable “Boilermaker Special” locomotive entrance tunnel was nowhere to be seen. Neither was Rowdy (a.k.a. Puffy Pete). The additional 12 months of promotion time brought in a sum total of 43 more fans than attended 2002’s first-round doubleheader, as Saturday’s official attendance of 5182 nosed out the 5139 on hand when the Boilers beat Austin Peay after Old Dominion dispatched Georgia. Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech each had a reasonable number of fans, while Valparaiso brought in the largest contingent of “enemy” supporters. The vast majority of spectators, however, were clearly Purdue loyalists.
With the win, the Boilers improved to 27-5 on the season and advanced to the sub-regional final. Second-round games have not been automatic for the Boilers in recent years, and this fact is certainly being discussed in Virginia Tech circles as the Hokies prepare for Monday night’s match-up in Mackey.
Game Ball: The point-guard tandem of Erika Valek and Sharika Webb