NCAA Second Round
Although the fact was never mentioned during the past few months, Purdue was still smarting after losing at Mackey Arena in last year’s NCAA tournament. In the two days between the 2002-03 Boilermakers’ opening-round victory over Valparaiso and Monday’s meeting with the Virginia Tech Hokies, the Purdue players extensively discussed the effect of last season’s second-round loss to Old Dominion and resolved to avoid a similar exit this March. Although the Hokies who witnessed the Vegas Gold and Black’s lackluster effort against Valpo would never have been impolitic enough to say so publicly, Bonnie Henrickson’s charges might well have been wondering what all the fuss was about as they left Mackey Saturday. Indeed, the Hokies stepped onto the court on March 24 with a great deal of confidence, as they were also aware of Purdue’s failure to defend its home court in the second round of the 2000 “Big Dance”.
On Monday, the visitors took a 3-0 lead, only to see it immediately wiped out by a Beth Jones trey. The two teams would trade baskets for much of the first half. With 3:47 gone, the Boilers went ahead, 9-8, on Erika Valek’s pull-up jumper. Although the Hokies would never have the lead again, they would stay within shouting distance for much of the night. Keying the hosts’ offense was Valek, who racked up 16 points in the first 15 minutes of the contest. Once Henrickson actually assigned a player to guard Erika, the junior's per-minute production finally descended from stratospheric levels. For most of the opening period, Purdue would build a margin of 5 to 8 points, only to have Tech go on a mini-run of its own and reel Kristy Curry’s club back in. By the intermission, the Boilers’ advantage had climbed to 11 (41-30).
The beginning of the second half was all Boilermakers. After a pair of Mary Jo Noon free throws, two consecutive transition baskets widened the home team’s edge to 47-30. Henrickson then called a timeout. Her decision to change her strategy paid off immediately, as the set play she drew up produced a three-point basket. A few empty Purdue possessions later, the Hokies had crawled their way back into the game. With a little over 13 minutes to go, the Big East squad closed its deficit to 5 points (52-47). On the Boilermakers’ ensuing possession, Noon and Emily Heikes went up for a rebound and got tangled in each other's feet. Both fell down and took a while to recover. A Hokie grabbed the board and lit off on a 5-on-3 break. Shereka Wright then established position in the lane and salvaged a potentially disastrous situation by drawing a charge. On Purdue’s subsequent trip down court, Jones was pressured on the perimeter. She reacted by taking the ball to the basket for a layup “and one”. The traditional three-point play disrupted the Hokies’ momentum and allowed the hosts to regain control. By this time, Virginia Tech had adjusted to Purdue's perimeter scoring, and the open shots Erika and Beth once enjoyed had been taken away. Lindsey Hicks, however, was now being left unguarded. The junior responded by nailing consecutive three-point baskets, the second of which pushed her team’s lead to 63-55 with 6:43 left to play. For the rest of the game, the Hokies had a difficult time mounting any consistent offense, and Purdue won going
away. The final score was 80-62.
Comments on Specific Aspects of the Game
When the game began, Tech appeared to be concentrating on stopping only Mary Jo Noon and Shereka Wright. Seeing those two as Purdue’s sole scoring options, the Hokies pretty much ignored Erika Valek, even after she had repeatedly torched the underdogs for easy buckets. In one notable sequence, Erika was pushing the ball up the court. Seeing that the Chicago Maroon and Burnt Orange had gotten back in time to prevent a transition layup, Valek took the ball out to the perimeter. Not one defender moved to prevent her from taking a shot. After Erika was given time to carefully get set and spot up, it was no surprise that she hit the resulting three-pointer. As the Hokies responded to hot shooters by eventually covering them, Purdue was able to counter by finding new scoring options. The Boilers finished the night shooting 49% from the field overall, including a 73% success rate from behind the arc.
Curry opened the night by alternating between zone and man-to-man defense. It quickly became apparent, however, that the visitors were having a hard time releasing shots against the latter alignment. Consequently, the Boilers then stuck with the “man” for most of the contest. The tight defense forced 20 turnovers, 12 of which were credited as Purdue steals. Virginia Tech’s players did display accuracy on the shots they got off. The Hokies hit at a 55% clip from the floor, and connected on 4 of the 6 shots they launched from three-point range.
The battle of the boards was almost even, with Purdue nosing out the Hokies by a 27-26 count. Although neither team had a dominant player in this department, Wright did manage a game-best 8 caroms. On more than one occasion, Shereka was boxing out a Tech post, and collected the rebound by elevating above the much taller woman to grab the ball.
It's not often that a team shoots 55% from the floor and loses the game by 18 points, but such was the Hokies’ lot on Monday. The deciding factor in the game was the Boilers’ huge advantage at the charity stripe. Virginia Tech attempted only 6 foul shots, and connected on a mere 2. Purdue, on the other hand, hit 18 of its 23 free-throw attempts (78%). Noon, Jones, and Valek were each perfect from the line.
The coaching staff’s game plan was excellent, and the players carried it out extremely well. Valek was primarily responsible for keeping the pace of the game high and, in turn, keeping the Hokies out of their comfort zone. Purdue’s offensive mix got everyone involved. While Mary Jo, Beth, and Lindsey benefited from set plays, Erika was allowed to create on her own, as was Shereka. The Boilers took care of the ball, as was evidenced by their 14:10 assist-turnover ratio on the night.
Mary Jo Noon certainly made sure that her final appearance on Keady Court was a memorable one. Mary Jo played very well on both ends of the floor. When on defense, she hung with Tech’s posts. When the Boilers had the ball, she connected on a high percentage of her shots. In the final 10 seconds of the game, Shereka Wright flipped the rock to Noon, who was standing so close to the sideline that she was behind the arc. Without hesitation, Mary Jo took the first three-point attempt of her career, and hit nothing but net. Her most impressive play of the night, however, might have been the transition basket she scored after beating the Hokies down the court and catching a pass
on the fly. In her farewell to Mackey Arena, the team’s lone senior recorded 17 points (5-of-10 field-goal attempts, 1-of-1 from three-point range, 6-of-6 free-throw tries), 3 rebounds, 1 blocked shot, and 3 turnovers.
It was obvious from the opening tip that Virginia Tech's primary -- indeed, for the first quarter of the game, only -- point of defensive emphasis was to prevent Shereka Wright from slashing to the basket. Whenever Shereka made a move, a Hokie was attached to her in some way. If Wright attempted to drive for a score, three defenders converged on her, and one drew a charge. Being covered so completely translated into a poor shooting percentage for the All-Big-Ten performer. With every other Boiler starter scoring easily, however, there was no need for Shereka to force the issue. Instead, the junior took what the visitors gave her. She collected a game-high 7 assists by repeatedly finding unguarded teammates; she stepped into passing lanes for a game-high 4 steals; she fought under the boards and grabbed a game-high 8 rebounds. Shereka also notched 9 points (1-of-5 FG, 7-of-10 FT) and 4 turnovers.
A shooter’s slump lasts only until her next “make”. Despite Beth Jones’s recent struggles from the field, Curry last week found several ways to encourage Jones to keep shooting. The Boiler boss probably felt vindicated Monday, when Beth's shot was on again. What's more, when defenders began getting out on Jones to take away her spot-up shooting, she put the ball on the deck, attacked the basket, and finished. Her three-point play with 12 minutes left extended Purdue’s lead to 8, and was the key highlight because it turned the tide permanently in the Boilers’ favor. Beth ended up with 16 points (5-of-5 FG, 3-of-3 treys, 3-of-3 FT), 3 steals, and 2 assists to 1 turnover.
Ieva Kublina, Virginia Tech's leading scorer on the season, is a classic European center. The Latvian is extremely mobile, can pass well, and has an excellent three-point shot. Lindsey Hicks was the Boiler assigned to guard Kublina when Purdue employed man-to-man sets. Although Lindsey gave up several inches in the match-up, Hicks had enough speed and mobility to essentially shut Ieva down. During the second half, Hicks nailed several shots after recognizing that she was the Boiler off whom the Hokies’ defense was “cheating”. Her back-to-back treys were back-breakers for the visitors in maroon and orange. In a solid outing, Lindsey amassed 10 points (4-of-12 FG, 2-of-3 three-pointers, 0-of-2 FT), 2 rebounds, an assist, and 2 steals.
Erika Valek was totally on top of her game as she dictated tempo, kept constant ball pressure on the opposing point guard, recognized the Hokies’ set plays, and set the emotional tone for the Boilermakers. Oh yeah, she also scored – and Lordy, Lordy, can that girl hit shots! Her ability to stop on a dime and elevate on a jumper is amazing. When interviewed by ESPN, the Purdue coaching staff expressed a belief that Erika can score off the dribble better than anyone else in the college ranks. By the end of Monday’s game, the network’s announcers had to agree with the opinion. Luckily for Purdue, opposing teams still seem to be reading press clippings instead of watching (and listening to) gametapes. Little effort is thus expended in guarding Valek. Yet when the defense fails to make a strong move to stop the basketball, the Colombian will “take it to the hoop” and finish. And if Erika isn’t covered on the perimeter, she will take –- and hit -- the three-point shot. Time and again, Valek scored by taking advantage of the Hokies’ passive defense. Evenif Erika’s recognition is not All-American, her line certainly was. Besides a game-high 24 points (10-of-16 FG, 2-of-3 treys, 2-of-2 FT), she accumulated 6 rebounds, 1 blocked shot, 1 steal, and 3 assists to 1turnover.
Curry has gone into playoff mode with regard to her reserves. For the remainder of the NCAA tournament, it can be expected that the bench will receive limited minutes, and that only eight or nine Boilers will get into any game. On Monday, Emily Heikes was the Purdue non-starter to see the most action. During her 15 minutes of court time, Heikes played with her usual gritty determination. Along with the other reserves, she now needs to learn to play not just harder, but also smarter, against foes who have upped their own levels of effort on the “Road to the Final Four”. Emily finished with 2 points (1-of-3 FG), 3 rebounds, an assist, and a steal.
Sharika Webb played eleven minutes, the second-most of any Purdue reserve. Webb’s time on the court was more limited by the strong play of Jones and Valek than by any deficiency in Sharika’s own game. Not only did the freshman compete under the basket, she moved the ball well when the Boilers were on offense. Although she
missed both of her field-goal attempts (one from two-point range, one from behind the arc), Webb did pull down 2 rebounds and record one steal. Sharika did not make an assist, but she also did not turn the ball over. Perhaps her best move of the night was not
recorded in the box score. Sharika set a killer screen for Lindsey Hicks on the junior forward’s second clutch three-point basket.
Although Carol Duncan logged only 5 minutes against the Hokies, she at least appears to have reestablished herself firmly in the rotation. As Mary Jo's backup Monday, Carol was not seen as an offensive threat, and Shereka Wright was able to take advantage of the fact that Duncan was not being defended. When Shereka fed her the ball on the low block, Carol put in the bunny for her two points on the evening. Duncan went 1-for-2
from the field, and pulled down a rebound as well.
Missy Taylor was on the court for 2 minutes in the first half, but did not otherwise dent the box score. Hannah Anderson, Sabrina Keys, and Brianna Howard did not play.
As does Penn State, Virginia Tech relies almost exclusively on calling plays from the sideline while running half-court sets. Perhaps all the time Purdue’s staff had spent in scouting and otherwise preparing for the Nittany Lions paid an extra dividend, as Curry and her assistants prepared superbly for Henrickson's squad. It was later reported that the Boilers had drilled extensively before the game, and learned not only the Hokies’ plays, but also which hand signal indicated which set. An excellent job by Kristy Curry,
Pam Stackhouse, Kerry Cremeans, and Kelly Curry.
Once again, extremely physical play was permitted under the basket. As has also been the case most of the season, Purdue ended up on top when hacks and grabs were not called and brute strength was allowed to determine which team ultimately gained possession of the ball. Someone wanting to prove that "home cooking" occurred in many first- and second-round games could certainly point to Monday’s contest as evidence -- the Hokies were whistled for 10 more fouls than were the Boilers.
Let the hand wringing begin. A reported audience of 4909 was on hand Monday evening. An extra year for advanced promotion had absolutely no effect on Mackey's attendance figures. As Yogi Berra once reportedly said, "If people don't want to come to the game, you can't stop them." It has been reported that a high priority for the “powers that be” will be to use the coming off-season to address the sagging attendance. The first moves can't come a moment too soon. Those who were in "the house" were predominantly supporters of the home team. Indeed, Mackey was the loudest it had been all season, as the screaming Boiler fans truly constituted a sixth man.
The NCAA tournament is looking more and more like the Big East Invitational for the Boilermakers. Because Purdue will be joined at the East Regional by UConn, Boston College, and Notre Dame, Virginia Tech was the first of three straight Big East teams that Kristy Curry’s charges must defeat in order to reach the Final Four. On March 30, the Boilers will meet a rejuvenated Notre Dame team that is finally living up to its pre-season hype. Despite the fact that Purdue easily beat the Fighting Irish at the Joyce Center in January, the rematch promises to be extremely challenging for the Vegas Gold and Black.
Purdue's resume at this point of the campaign features a 28-5 record, the Big 10 Tournament championship, and a trip to the Sweet Sixteen. Regardless of the outcome of next Sunday's game, the Boilers’ 2002-03 season must be considered a tremendous success.
Game Ball: Erika Valek