NCAA Sweet Sixteen
The National Collegiate Athletic Association could teach a thing or two to the French ice dancing judges who worked the last Winter Olympics. The NCAA’s experiment with pre-arranged sites for this year’s women’s tournament has produced a flawed event rife with huge inconsistencies and a playing field about as level as the ones used for rock-climbing competitions. Tennessee, Stanford, and New Mexico could each have played four home games before traveling to Atlanta for the Final Four. In contrast, two #1 seeds (Duke and Louisiana State) and one #2 seed (Texas) had to play each of their NCAA contests on the road. The selection committee did eventually come out smelling like a rose, as each region’s top two seeds competed in the Elite Eight, while three #1’s made the Final Four and two will square off for the title Tuesday. Along the way, however, there were plenty of “upsets” on the order of West #4 seed Ohio State’s loss at #5 Louisiana Tech’s Thomas Assembly Center in Ruston.
Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish arrived in the Sweet Sixteen the old fashioned way -- they earned it. Before the season, the Irish had been selected to contend for the Big East crown. The team failed to gel, however, and only managed a tie for fifth place in league play. After beating Pittsburgh and losing to Villanova in the conference tournament, Notre Dame had a 19-10 overall record. Though the Irish were considered “on the bubble”, they learned on Selection Sunday that they had made the 64-team NCAA field and received the East’s #11 seed. Muffet McGraw’s club headed to Manhattan, Kansas. After knocking off #6 seed Arizona in a first-round game, the Irish managed to shock host Kansas State before a partisan crowd of over 11,000 screaming Wildcat fans. In some quarters, this victory was interpreted as an indication that the Irish were finally reaching their potential. Accordingly, there was optimism that McGraw's charges might avenge the 71-54 pasting they had suffered at the hands of the Purdue Boilermakers in January. Much to the delight of the busloads of Boiler fans that made the trip to Dayton, however, the Sweet Sixteen meeting of the intrastate rivals was extremely similar to the earlier contest.
Although Purdue drew first blood on March 30, Notre Dame quickly responded by narrowing the gap. Neither team was scoring at a tremendous rate, as evidenced by the Boilers’ 14-11 lead with 8:20 left in the first half. While Kristy Curry’s club was maintaining the lead by getting the ball inside, Alicia Ratay's willingness to penetrate and create her own shot kept the Irish close. After the final media timeout of the opening period, ESPN sideline reporter Beth Mowins relayed that Curry wasn't happy with Purdue’s effort despite its 27-25 advantage. As if to validate Kristy’s impression, a Ratay jump shot tied the game a short time later. Beth Jones immediately answered with a three-pointer that pushed the Boilers back into the lead for good. Erika Valek’s trey with 10 seconds to go in the half gave Purdue a 33-29 advantage at the intermission.
The start of the second half was deja vu all over again for Notre Dame. As they had at the Joyce Center in January, the Fighting Irish fell apart coming out of the locker room. Meanwhile, everything was working for the Vegas Gold and Black. The Boilers scored off passes to the posts down low, on outside shots, and even by having slashers or jump shooters peel off from weave plays run up top. The sequence that perhaps best illustrated Purdue’s fortunes occurred with a little over 18 minutes to go. The Irish were in a zone, and had allowed the Boilers neither an uncontested shot nor dribble penetration. With 5 seconds left on the shot clock, Valek penetrated under the basket. When the Gold and Blue converged on Erika, she got the ball to Mary Jo Noon, who put in a shot from the free-throw line as the buzzer was going off. In the first seven minutes of the half, Purdue went on a 20-4 run to extend its lead to 53-33. With three-fourths of the game elapsed, McGraw finally switched from her customary zone defenses to a tough man-to-man. This defensive adjustment effectively put the brakes on the Boilers, who had difficulty scoring for the remainder of the game. The Irish could not capitalize, however, as they themselves had difficulty scoring. Although Purdue’s shots weren’t falling easily during the final five minutes of the game, Curry’s charges scrapped and fought for every loose ball until the clock read 0:00 and the score was 66-47.
Comments on Specific Aspects of the Game
Although the Boilers aren't known as a particularly strong three-point shooting team, they did hit 5 of their 9 attempts (56%) from behind the arc on the afternoon. Overall, Purdue hit 42% of its shots from the field. Curry’s charges had little trouble picking apart Notre Dame's zone, and McGraw’s switch to man-to-man came way too late to affect the outcome of the game.
Notre Dame managed only 18 points in the second half, and deserving much of the credit for this was the constant pressure that the Boilers put on the ball. Another incredible statistic was the Irish’s 0% (0-for-6) performance on three-point attempts. Overall, McGraw’s troops shot 34% from the field. They also committed 18 turnovers, 8 of which were credited as Purdue steals.
The one place the victors failed to dominate was on the glass. The Irish won the rebounding war, 41-39. Purdue’s effort was distributed extremely well throughout the team, as 9 of the 11 Boilers who saw the court each pulled down at least one board. Shereka Wright led the Vegas Gold and Black with 10 caroms.
The Boilers, who partially regained the touch they exhibited during the regular season, hit 13 of their 19 free-throw attempts (68%) on the afternoon. Mary Jo Noon and Beth Jones were each perfect from the charity stripe.
For most of the game, the Boilers looked extremely comfortable and “in control”. Curry’s charges had little problem attacking Notre Dame's zone with ball reversal and penetration moves. Many of the victors’ turnovers occurred when Purdue’s players were a little too relaxed. All told, the Boilers had 10 assists to 14 turnovers.
Lindsey Hicks, who was extremely active on the low block, played a very solid game overall. Perhaps because few plays were designed for her this season, she took fewer shots from the floor than did any other member of Purdue’s regular starting lineup. Against the Irish, this pattern repeated itself as Lindsey recorded 6 points (3-of-5 field-goal attempts, 0-of-2 three-point tries), 5 rebounds, 2 steals, and a turnover.
Notre Dame was prepared for Shereka Wright's drives to the hoop, and Wright had a difficult time when she attempted her signature move. As a result, the junior’s shooting percentage was lower than is typical for her. Because Shereka is much more than a scorer, however, she made a big impact on the outcome of this game by finding open teammates when the Irish collapsed on her and by playing heady defense. Shereka notched a double-double by scoring 12 points (5-of-16 FG, 2-of-5 FT) and grabbing 10 rebounds. She also had 2 blocks, 3 steals, 4 assists, and 4 turnovers.
Mary Jo Noon held her own against Notre Dame's speedy, athletic posts. Her infraction-plagued games now distant memories, Noon was whistled for only one foul in her 29 minutes of play. Mary Jo was one of four Purdue starters in double figures. To her 12 points (4-of-9 FG, 4-of-4 FT), she added 7 rebounds and 3 turnovers.
Time and again, the Boilers found Beth Jones all alone behind the three-point line, and the junior took advantage of her opportunities by connecting consistently from “downtown”. As had been the case in January, Beth was assigned to face-guard Ratay. Although Alicia scored 16 points to pace the Irish, Jones defended the senior well enough to allow the Boilers to cover Alicia’s teammates without having to double-team Ratay. Beth logged 11 points (3-of-8 FG, 3-of-4 treys, 2-of-2 FT), 4 rebounds, a steal, and 3 assists to 1 turnover.
In the Sweet Sixteen, Erika Valek kept her string of excellent NCAA appearances alive. Valek made excellent decisions against the zone defense as she alternately fed the post, reversed the ball, found outside shooters, or took pull-up jumpers. As had been the case in the tournament’s early rounds, the opposing coach didn't give Erika much defensive attention until the Boilers had put the game out of reach. When McGraw finally assigned Megan Duffy and Le'Tania Severe to take turns “staying in Erika’s grill”, Valek had much more difficulty both running the team and finding her shot. Erika still contributed a game-high 19 points (7-of-13 FG, 2-of-3 treys, 3-of-4 FT). She also ended up with 2 rebounds, a steal, 3 assists, and 2 turnovers.
Emily Heikes displayed her usual brand of aggressive play on the low block. Perhaps Emily’s best play began when she grabbed a carom mere centimeters from the end line. As she did her falling sequoia imitation while attempting to stay in bounds, the sophomore got the ball to a teammate to salvage the possession. Heikes finished with 5 points (2-of-3 FG, 1-of-2 FT), 3 rebounds, and 1 turnover.
Sharika Webb, who might have the fastest hands on the team, is extremely proficient at disrupting the other team's offensive flow by getting her mitts on the rock. In her eleven minutes on the court, Sharika failed to connect on her only field-goal attempt, but she played quite well in all other phases of the game. Sharika’s line featured one point (0-of-1 FG, 1-of-2 FT), 4 rebounds, a steal, and 2 turnovers.
In Missy Taylor’s three minutes of action, the freshman pulled down a rebound and blocked a shot.
Carol Duncan missed both of her 2 field goal attempts, but did defend quite well on the low block in her four minutes of court time.
Sabrina Keys, who snatched the last rebound of the game, and Brianna Howard each got in for the final minute. Hannah Anderson did not play.
Whenever two schools that met during the regular season face each other in the NCAA tournament, both opposing coaches invariably claim that the squads have changed soooooo much that absolutely no comparisons can be made to the first contest. But no team changes all of its plays and personnel halfway through the season, and at least some of the original legwork and scouting is thus useful the second time around. Because the Boilers again appeared to be extremely well prepared for Notre Dame, Curry and her staff must be credited with doing a very good job.
This was not a particularly physical game, and the officials did a very creditable job.
The official attendance figure of 9552 was, no doubt, helped by Dayton's proximity to South Bend and West Lafayette. I watched the game in a Tampa sports bar. Initially, the hostess was puzzled by my request to put the basketball game on one of the monitors, as the men’s Syracuse-Oklahoma tilt was being shown on a screen the size of an NHL rink. When the hostess finally understood that I meant the "girls’ game”, Purdue-Notre Dame appeared on one of the small side screens. Although the staff didn't seem too happy to have a table occupied by someone nursing virgin pina coladas for two hours, the other patrons were apparently happy to watch. The group at the neighboring table even remarked that Purdue was the place where that "really good girl from Fenwick" was going.
After defeating Notre Dame, Purdue had only one team left to beat before reaching the Final Four. Unfortunately for the Boilers, that situation was analogous to a game show contestant’s saying "I've answered 14 questions correctly, Meredith, and I just need to get one more right before I win the million dollars." The UConn Huskies, who proved to be much tougher than any of Purdue's previous opponents, emerged victorious on Tuesday. The Boilers’ final victory of the season was thus the March 30 triumph over Purdue’s familiar in-state rival.
Game Ball: Shereka Wright