In-state rivals Purdue and Notre Dame have been traveling on parallel paths for the past several years. Purdue won a national championship in '99; Notre Dame followed suit 2 years later. These championships were won primarily due to the play of strong senior leaders (all of whom have enjoyed solid WNBA careers); Stephanie White and Ukari Figgs for the Boilermakers followed by Niele Ivey and Ruth Riley of the Irish. In both instances the teams included at least one impact sophomore - Katie Douglas and Alicia Ratay respectively. Both teams leveraged their Final Four exposure into strong recruiting classes. As seniors, Katie Douglas [and Camille Cooper] led Purdue's high profile recruits to a second Final Four. The Notre Dame Nation believed it was Alicia Ratay's turn to do the same in 2002-2003. The rest of the nation agreed- Notre Dame was highly ranked before the season began and was picked to win the Big East conference. But somebody hadn't read the script - Alicia Ratay. The player that holds the NCAA Division 1 record for three point percentage was flat, passive, and disinterested her entire senior campaign. Alicia didn't look for her shot, and when she did it often failed to connect. Muffet McGraw tried everything a head coach can do and then some, but Alicia never regained her underclass form. The Irish struggled, either winning against poor teams by narrow margins or losing to teams they should have creamed. Notre Dame came nowhere close to winning the Big East, and ended their year with a 21-11 record. As fate would have it, their last game was a Sweet Sixteen blow-out at the hands of the Boilers.
Up until Sunday afternoon's contest against Notre Dame, the 2003-2004 Boilermakers bore an uncomfortable similarity to the 2002-2003 Fighting Irish. In past years, teams like Western Michigan, UCLA, or Valparaiso would have been handled easily. This season the Boilers kept every game close by virtue of their poor shooting and strings of empty possessions. Senior Erika Valek had assumed the guise of Ratay, playing well below the level she exhibited last season as she endured the mother of all shooting slumps. The contest Sunday afternoon would tell the tale - was the loss to Penn State rock bottom? A place from which the Boilers had no where else to go but up? Or was it an indication of things to come for the remainder of the season- a year that would have Purdue sputtering through game after frustrating game to a disappointing finish?
In the first minutes of Sunday's contest it appeared as if sputter and frustration were the words of the day. Just like the recent game against the Lady Lions, the Boilers could do little on the offensive end. Tight defense kept the home team close, but rushed shots and poor passing limited the offense. With 5 minutes elapsed, Purdue had missed 10 of their first 12 shots and were trailing the Irish 7-8. It was then that Sharika Webb sank a trey to give Purdue a one point lead. With that shot, it was as if a giant lead weight was lifted off the necks of the players. The entire team "snapped out of it" - shots fell, passes hit their mark, and rebounds were grabbed. Purdue went 9 for 19 the rest of the half and went into the locker room ahead by 12 points - 32-20.
Muffet McGraw tried everything but put in her assistant coaches in an effort to turn things around in the second half. Crystal Erwin started in the place of the ineffective Teresa Borton. McGraw went big with her tallest posts; she went small with a 4 guard line-up. Nothing helped very much as the Boilers came roaring all the way back to their Kansas State form. They broke presses easily, moved the ball in the half court and dictated every facet of the game. It was a balanced team effort - every available Boiler played at least 5 minutes. Every player scored and all but Ashley Mays pulled down at least one rebound. The Boilers led by as much as 20 points before Curry sat her starters for good. A late Irish flurry against the end of Purdue’s bench made the score somewhat more acceptable, but the final margin was still 13 points - 76-63.
Comments of Specific Aspects of the Game:
Purdue’s offensive output increased steadily throughout the course of the game. After warming up in the first half, the team shot at a 50% clip in the second for a game average of 44%, including 36% from behind the line. It was an extremely balanced effort with 4 starters in double figures and every player scoring at least one point.
The Irish committed 18 turnovers, 13 of which were credited as Purdue steals. Perhaps the statistic that best reflects Purdue’s effectiveness at disrupting Notre Dame’s offensive flow was the fact that only 8 of their 22 made baskets were assisted. Holding a team to 37% shooting isn’t a bad reflection either.
The Purdue post players were boxing out like old pros The Boilers won the battle of the boards so convincingly and by such a large margin – 42-33 – that it was hard to believe that rebounding effectiveness has been a huge issue for the squad in the past months. Emily Heikes led the way with a game-high 10 caroms.
Not only did the shooting from the floor improve over the course of the game, the free throw shooting did as well. No doubt this reflects the players’ new-found comfort and focus. On the afternoon the Vegas Gold and Black connected on 19 of their 24 attempts for 79%. Lindsey Hicks and Beth Jones were perfect from the line.
The Boilers had a team assist to turnover ratio of 1.0 – with 17 of each. A team average assist to turnover ratio of 1 or better is the goal of most coaches and indicates an effective team effort. In contrast, Notre Dame’s team a/t mark was 8 to 18. Purdue particularly did well when feeding the post from the perimeter, a skill that is particularly difficult for perimeter players to master.
Lindsey Hicks rushed two shots at the beginning of the game was and was replaced by Erin Lawless. She returned a changed woman – and was perfect from the field and charity stripe for the remainder of the contest. Lindsey was active defensively and had what is easily one of her best outings in the boxing out department. On the afternoon she had a total of 10 points (2-4, 6-6 FT), 4 rebounds, and 3 steals to 1 turnover.
Shereka Wright reminds one of Dotie in “Finding Nemo” – her theme might be the forgetful fish’s “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming,,,,,” Shereka has a target on her back. She gets banged and bloodied, but somehow manages to keep on doing what she does best - consistently deliver excellent games. Notre Dame is not what one might call fleet of foot, and Shereka was able to use her superior speed to her advantage by slashing to the hoop. Her most important contribution, however, might have been her ability to shut Jackie Batteast down on the defensive end. In a “typical day at the office” outing, Wright amassed a game-high 21 points (6-9, 1-1 3 pt.er, 8-11 FT), 9 rebounds, 4 assists, and a steal to 2 turnovers.
Lost in the high degree of angst that Purdue’s generally spotty play has provoked over the past several weeks is the fact that Emily Heikes has elevated her game to that proverbial next level. She has had consecutive double doubles, and is playing with a great deal of confidence. Emily is test driving a baby hook shot and was able to connect several times over Notre Dame’s taller posts. Emily finished with 10 points (5-10) and 10 rebounds.
Opposing players, coaches, and fans must hate it when Beth Jones gets the ball on the perimeter. She’s always an outside threat. Notre Dame was prepared for her, and sent defenders out to contest her shot. Beth was able to use a dribble to evade the first defender and get the shot off. Her four point play in the middle of the first half broke the game open for the Boilers on Sunday. Beth demonstrated her usual brand of tough defense while helping with offensive flow in the half court. In an excellent outing, Beth recorded 10 points (3-9, 3-6 3 pt.er, 1-1 FT), 1 rebound, 4 assists, and 2 steals to 1 turnover.
Erika Valek has been in a slump all year. In an article before the game she revealed that her poor shooting was affecting other aspects of her game, and she vowed to maintain her focus despite her shooting woes. This occurred to some degree against Notre Dame – Erika bricked several shots she usually makes with ease. However, she did not appear to let it affect her as much as it had in previous contests. Erika played well in other area of the game and kept taking shots when appropriate without forcing anything. One hopes her shooting touch will return before this Thursday. Erika finished with a total of 4 points (2-8, 0-2 3 pt.er), 3 rebounds, 4 assists, and 2 steals to 3 turnovers.
Katie Gearlds could not buy a basket. Time and again she’d take a shot in the flow of the offense, never rushing a look. The ball would bounce softly around the rim and then fail to fall through the hoop. By the end of the afternoon Katie was becoming a bit frustrated, but regained her composure before the final buzzer. Gearld’s defensive efforts are improving, and she was credited with all three of Purdue’s blocked shots. In addition to the rejections, Katie recorded a total of 4 points (2-11, 0-4 3 pt.ers), 2 rebounds, 2 assists, and 2 steals to 2 turnovers.
Ashley Mays played for the final 5 minutes of the contest. Despite the fact the game was long decided, Mays played hard and had a positive impact. Her best play was a nifty assist on a broken play. In all Ashley had a total of 1 point (0-1, 1-2 FT), an assist and a turnover.
Erin Lawless is already establishing herself as one of the more physical players on the team. She would clobber an Irish post and then have the most angelic “who me?” expression when the whistle blew. Erin was disqualified after 14 minutes of rough play. Offensively, she appears to be becoming more discriminating with her shot selection, and remains a deadly scorer from 15 feet and in. On the afternoon she recorded 7 points (2-3, 3-4 FT), 1 rebound, and a turnover.
Carol Duncan had a very good game. She’s doing everything one could want a back up center to do. Carol doesn’t force anything, and she’s not often the focus of the offense. But she puts the ball through the hoop when given half a chance, plays extremely tough defense, and grabs more than her share of rebounds. She seems to have committed herself to being the player who will do the dirty work and “all the little things that don’t end up in the box score.” What did end up in the box score after 14 minutes of effort was a total of 4 points (2-2), 4 rebounds, and a steal to 2 turnovers.
Sharika Webb may have had better games from a statistical standpoint during her time at Purdue, but in at no time has she had a larger impact on a game than she did Sunday against Notre Dame. She scored 5 quick points the first time she was on the floor – a three pointer and then a bucket off of a strong baseline drive. In addition, she pumped the team up and energized the entire squad. After the game it was revealed that she started the season out of the coach’s good graces as she had not worked out as much as she should have during the summer. However, Sharika accepted responsibility for her position in Curry’s dog house and did what a mature player does – worked harder and got better. She played 19 quality minutes against the Irish, and when the game was finished Purdue had found its unquestioned back-up for the point guard position. In all, “Webby” recorded a total of 5 points (2-2, 1-1 3 pt.er), 2 rebounds, 2 assists, and 2 steals to 2 turnovers.
Kristy Curry receives very little credit for doing as well as she has because she inherited a National Championship team. This cheapens her accomplishments in the minds of the pundits because she never had to build a program from scratch or establish a recruiting network from nothing. In a manner of speaking, Muffet McGraw “inherited” a National Championship team herself in 2001. Because she built the recruiting base and was directly responsible for all the success leading up to the win in St. Louis, by all rights she should have had an easier time maintaining a high level of success in the years that have followed. A look at the two team’s records from 2001 to the present reveals quite the opposite, however. Notre Dame’s record in the intervening time is 48-26, or a 65% winning record. In contrast, Purdue has managed a 63-14 mark for an 82% total.
The word that best describes the officiating on Sunday would be creative. The trio of Dee Kantner, June Courteau, and Tina Napier would look at the flying bodies on the court and find the most amazing things to call as a result. Best of all was a sequence in the first half - several players from both teams were flying onto the floor and into each other in an attempt to corral a loose ball. After watching players wriggle around trying to avoid a tie up (technically a travel), tackle each other to secure the ball (technically a hold), and players from each team with both hands on the orb (that would be a jump ball), Courteau observed a flailing leg make contact with the sphere and immediately whistled the play to stop. The reason? A kicked ball, of course. Possession Notre Dame with a brand new shot clock to boot.
The announced attendance was 9854. With the exception of a block of green T-shirt wearing, noodle waving Notre Dame fans in the cheap seats, the spectators were pulling for the Boilers in the worst way. They particularly appreciated Emily's hard nosed play and rewarded the blue collar junior with a standing O when she left the floor for the last time.
Purdue has only conference games to contend with until the NCAA tournament. The Big 10 is deeper than ever, and this year there truly are no easy games. The Boilermakers will try to get them selves out of their 0-1 hole when they take on the Spartans of Michigan State in East Lansing. MSU has given Purdue a run for its money in recent years, and, even if they are able to sustain the level of play exhibited against Notre Dame, Thursday’s contest will be extremely challenging for the Boilermakers.
Game Ball: Sharika Webb