NCAA Elite Eight
Q: What do you call the 21st- rated high school senior of 1999?
A: A Connecticut role player.
Q: What do you call a UConn Husky who averaged 6 mop-up minutes per game as a senior?
A: A WNBA draft pick.
Q: What do Connecticut fans call a 35-1 season?
A: A rebuilding year.
Welcome to the world of UConn, a school that is so over-endowed with talent and depth that its basketball team is ranked #1 in the country even when coach Geno Auriemma starts three freshmen and has no senior players. Tennessee fans’ screams to the contrary, the Huskies have been the nation’s pre-eminent program for the last four seasons. This success rankles the "good old girls" who rule much of the sport. Not only is Auriemma male, he is a sarcastic, brash, and seems to regard basketball games as -- well, basketball games, not stages of any equality crusade or magical journey. The Huskies came into Tuesday's Elite Eight match-up with hopes of reaching their third consecutive Final Four. Standing in UConn’s way were the Purdue Boilermakers, who were riding a seven-game winning streak and playing some pretty good basketball of their own. Before the contest tipped off, Purdue’s athletes repeatedly stated that they were not afraid of the higher-ranked Huskies, and were planning to "dance with the gal what brung them" by sticking to the brand of Boiler ball that had gotten them to Dayton. Each Boilermaker also acknowledged that everybody on Kristy Curry’s roster would have to contribute positively for the full 40 minutes in order for Purdue to have any hope of hanging with the Huskies. Unfortunately for the Big Ten Tournament champs, they fell about 25 minutes short of their common goal.
The game started out well enough. With only 1:01 gone, Purdue went out to a 3-0 lead on the strength of a Shereka Wright layup "and one". Then the wheels fell off. The strong UConn defense blocked some shots and forced some bad looks. Meanwhile, the Huskies ran through their sets like the well-oiled machine that they are, spreading the scoring while dictating every aspect of the game. Apparently rattled, the Vegas Gold and Black went absolute-zero cold, missing wide-open shots and contested ones alike. The game was all but sealed when Purdue endured a seven-minute scoring drought before a Mary Jo Noon layup cut UConn’s lead to 17-5 with 12 minutes remaining in the half. On defense, Curry’s charges had originally played well while sticking to their game plan. As the Huskies’ lead increased and the fouls mounted, however, the Boilers began to miss assignments and allow easy buckets. By halftime, the Huskies had cruised to a 41-22 advantage.
After the break, the Boilers came out a much more composed team. As their shots began falling, they were able to match the Huskies basket for basket for the first half of the second stanza. Not only did this progress not appreciably narrow the margin, however, but Purdue continued to draw whistles at a rapid rate. With 17:19 still left to play, each Boiler starter besides Beth Jones had at least 3 fouls. Things finally changed for the "visitors" after the media timeout taken with 10:25 remaining on the clock. It seemed as if the underdogs made the decision to just play ball instead of worrying about fouling out, or about what the final score might be. UConn, meanwhile, had been in slow-down, cruise-control mode for much of the half. When play resumed, Purdue became the aggressor as the Huskies struggled to regain focus. The Jessica Moore fade-away jumper that increased UConn’s lead to 62-40 with 8:23 to go would be the last field goal for Auriemma’s club.
With just under 5 minutes remaining, the Boilers had pulled to within 15 when a wild sequence produced a breakaway layup opportunity for Beth Jones. Attempting to prevent the sure deuce, Willnett Crockett undercut Beth and injured the junior’s hand. With Jones forced to the sidelines, the Boilers appeared to gain additional inspiration. Sharika Webb, who replaced Beth and shot the free throws awarded to Jones, subsequently stole the ball from Diana Taurasi and penetrated into the lane before kicking the ball out to Shereka Wright for a trey. Shortly afterwards, another Webb steal led to an “old-fashioned” three-point play on which Lindsey Hicks narrowed the deficit to 10 with 3:59 left in the game. With 2:02 to play, Hicks scored “from downtown” to bring her team within 6 (66-60). Purdue would get no closer, however. As the Boilers began fouling to stop the clock, the Huskies knocked down enough free throws to pull away and win by a final score of 73-64.
Comments on Specific Aspects of the Game
In the first half, the Boilers connected on a mere 19% of their field-goal attempts. Receiving approximately equal credit (or blame) for this horrible figure were Connecticut’s effective pressure and Purdue’s whiffing on wide-open shots. After the intermission, Curry’s troops pulled things together and hit 42% of their attempts for a game total of 32%. Purdue outscored the Huskies, 42-32, in the second stanza. The rally, however, was ultimately “too little, too late”.
The disparity between Purdue’s first-half offensive performance and second-half point production was echoed on the defensive end. In the opening period, the Huskies had little trouble as they hit 52% of their attempts from the floor. When the Boilers stopped worrying about fouling and just “got after it”, they held their opponents to a 36% success rate on second-stanza action shots. Remarkably, UConn was held without a field goal for the final 8:23. The Huskies committed 14 turnovers, exactly half of which were credited as Purdue steals.
The Vegas Gold and Black held a decisive 43-33 advantage on the glass. An incredible 21 of the losing club’s caroms were offensive rebounds. This statistic was padded during the many Purdue possessions on which the Boilers snagged stray shots, only to put the ball back up and miss yet again. Mary Jo Noon claimed a game-high 10 boards.
As might be expected from an experienced team that recognizes its need to take advantage of every available scoring opportunity, Purdue shot extremely well (93%) from the charity stripe. During this 14-for-15 performance, Lindsey Hicks, Shereka Wright, Erika Valek, and Emily Heikes were all perfect from the line.
Purdue did not record an assist during the first half. This was completely attributable to the Boilers’ inability to put the ball through the hoop. The passing was actually quite good, as was the overall game plan. Once the shots began to fall, Curry’s club ended up with a 9:12 assist/turnover ratio for the night.
A mark of a great player is how she performs when the stakes are highest and everything is on the line. Shereka Wright stepped up to the challenge and had an excellent game. When nothing was falling for Purdue in the first half, Wright managed to get herself to the line and make her free throws. She takes what the other team gives her, seizing opportunities to score even as she looks for her preferred shot. When the Huskies sagged off Shereka and dared her to shoot the trey, she responded by connecting on 3 of her 4 attempts from behind the arc. On defense, she used her speed to prevent dribble penetration and grab rebounds. In the final game of her junior season, Wright notched a game-high 25 points (8-of-17 field-goal attempts, 3-of-4 three-point shots, 6-of-6 free-throw attempts). She added 7 rebounds, a blocked shot, and 2 assists to 3 turnovers.
Mary Jo Noon played like a senior aware that each game might be her last. When Noon was allowed to play, she used her size to advantage by clogging up the middle. As did her teammates, she had trouble hitting point-blank layups in the first half, then shot extremely well after the break. Foul trouble limited Mary Jo to 27 minutes before she was disqualified. Noon’s 10 points (5-of-12 FG) gave her 1008 for her career, and her 10 rebounds completed the double-double. She also blocked 2 shots and committed 3 turnovers.
Lindsey Hicks, the victim of many of the officials’ more "creative" calls, joined Mary Jo in fouling out of the game. As she had several other times, Hicks nailed some huge three-point baskets in helping Purdue mount its comeback. Defensively, Lindsey's performance reflected the remarkable improvement she has made over the course of the season. In all, Hicks accumulated 9 points (3-of-7 FG, 2-of-4 treys, 1-of-1 FT), 3 rebounds, 2 steals, and a turnover.
After Erika Valek averaged 22 points per outing for Purdue’s first three games of the tournament, everyone finally figured out that Erika must be stopped if the Boilers are to be shut down. Even ESPN's Stacey “The Blinkless Wonder” Dales-Schumann commented on how important Valek has been. The fact was not lost on the Huskies, who covered the 5’6” guard with their best defender, 6'0" Ashley Battle. When two of Erika's early shots were blocked, the junior appeared to be rattled, and had trouble connecting on the open looks she later received. On defense, Valek seemed to be pressing (in the “trying too hard” sense), and picked up 4 fouls in her 32 minutes. When the Boilers made their comeback, Erika opted to play the role of the pure point guard, and did not look to score. She finished with 8 points (2-of-10 FG, 0-of-5 treys, 4-of-4 FT), 3 rebounds, 2 steals, and 2 assists to 3 turnovers.
Beth Jones saw her shooting touch desert her for much of the game. More than any other Boiler, Beth appeared to be rushing things and forcing shots. She was assigned to guard Naismith Award winner Diana Taurasi, who was too tall, too accurate, and generally too much Taurasi to be slowed down very much by the beleaguered Jones. Beth ended up with 3 points (1-of-11 FG, 1-of-6 three-point tries), 2 rebounds, 2 assists, and 1 turnover.
The first time someone is called upon to compete in such a game as an Elite Eight contest, the player usually requires some time to adapt to the pressure inherent in the high-stakes atmosphere. Emily Heikes appeared to have a bad case of the jitters Tuesday. The sophomore could not find her stroke, and missed several shots she would normally have hit with little problem. The extremely physical style agreed with Heikes, however, and she played extremely well on the defensive end. The eight rebounds she grabbed were second only to Mary Jo Noon’s 10. She also notched 4 points (1-of-7 FG, 2-of-2 FT) and one steal.
In contrast to Emily, Carol Duncan exhibited a great deal of composure and played quite well. As is true of Heikes, Carol does best in the physical games where players are allowed to hack off opponents' limbs without getting whistled for infractions. On one notable occasion, Duncan ripped a ball out of a Husky's arms so forcefully that it appeared as if Carol would also emerge holding the UConn player's severed head. In her 11 minutes, Duncan collected 4 points on perfect 2-for-2 shooting from the floor. The freshman also added 4 rebounds and one blocked shot.
Any worries about Purdue's future point guard were put to rest with Sharika Webb's gritty play. It was Sharika who seemed most comfortable with attacking the Huskies who were bringing the ball up the floor, and Webb’s open-court steal off Taurasi keyed the Boilers’ comeback. Sharika's strength allowed the freshman to take some bumping without losing her composure, and her poor shooting was the only indication that Webb was unsettled in any way. In all, Sharika amassed 1 point (0-of-2 FG, 0-of-2 treys, 1-of-2 FT), 1 rebound, 2 steals, and 3 assists to 1 turnover.
Amazingly enough, Missy Taylor pulled down 2 rebounds in her mere 2 minutes of court time. She missed her only field-goal attempt, however, and must add some muscle before she can hope to compete against a team as physical as the Huskies.
Sabrina Keys, Brianna Howard, and Hannah Anderson did not play.
Before the game, Curry and her assistants were asked if they planned to adopt the slow-down strategy with which Villanova had defeated UConn in the Big East Tournament final. The staff was quoted as saying that the team would play "Purdue ball" and not make any big changes. This strategy appeared to be solid, as the Boilers competed quite well once they managed to settle down and execute. UConn was far superior to any of the Vegas Gold and Black’s previous opponents on the season, and Curry’s charges appeared to be totally unprepared for the difference between the Huskies’ caliber of play and the level of the Penn States and Vanderbilts of the world. If Purdue plans to end each future campaign by appearing in the Final Four and contending for the national championship, the Boilers would be well advised to schedule more “Top 5” opponents in pre-conference play.
No less a women's basketball authority than PTI's Tony Kornheiser declared the game’s officiating to have been horrible. Good or bad, the performance was extremely typical of the current NCAA Tournament. In many instances, the players could only laugh at the bizarre calls that were made – or not made.
The announced attendance of 8503 included a large contingent of Purdue supporters. Those fans who watched ESPN’s coverage of the game were treated to Mike Patrick’s play-by-play and the color commentary of Ann Meyers. For reasons known only to the network’s top executives, these two constitute ESPN's "A" team of women’s basketball announcers, and thus call the most significant games. Patrick had a great deal of difficulty putting the correct names with faces (Shereka and Sharika, in identical white sweatbands, pretty much did him in). Meanwhile, Meyers treated us to her customary disconnected ramblings about basketball, life, the universe, and all that.
Even though it ultimately fell short, Purdue's late rally allowed the team to end the season on a positive note. In the game’s opening minutes, the Boilers were knocked on their heels, and shot so poorly that they dug themselves an enormous hole by halftime. During the final twenty minutes, Curry’s charges had the option of either “bagging it” and going through the motions, or fighting back with everything the players had. The fact that the latter course was chosen says a great deal about the squad's character and resolve.
The 2002-03 Boilermakers end up with a 29-6 record, the Big 10 Tournament championship, and an Elite Eight appearance. Although it's never fun to lose one's last game, the campaign must be considered a major success. The team will miss the height and solid inside presence that Mary Jo Noon has brought for the last four seasons. With 4 starters (including two legitimate candidates for All-America honors) returning as three Top 100 recruits enter the program, however, the Purdue program’s coming years look extremely bright.
Honorary Game Balls: The 2002-2003 Purdue Boilermakers -- Mary Jo Noon, Shereka Wright, Erika Valek, Beth Jones, Lindsey Hicks, Emily Heikes, Hannah Anderson, Missy Taylor, Carol Duncan, Sharika Webb, Sabrina Keys, Brianna Howard, and Ashley Mays
Golden Whistles: Kerry Cremeans and Pam Stackhouse. Thanks for everything, Kerry and “Stack”, and may you both enjoy success in the future.