Minnesota entered Sunday's match-up with Purdue as this year’s last undefeated team in women's D1 college basketball. The Gophers are enjoying unprecedented success and notoriety this year, and leading up to the game had been deemed the sixth best team in the country. Some doubts remained, however. The team’s #9 RPI, #33 Strength of Schedule, and the fact that they had only played one ranked team, raised the possibility that the Golden Gophers were just as likely to be iron pyrite as 18-karat. Bench leader Pam Borton responded to these objections in typical head coach fashion, reacting to statements of fact as if they were the rantings of fanatical “hatas” out to sink the program. In response to the observation than the Gophers had yet to be challenged on the road she responded, “I think we’re road tested. We played with the same intensity at the Bahamas that we did at home.” To which Kristy Curry could have responded, “Girlfriend, if you think Bahamas intensity is going to cut it in Mackey, you’ve got another thing coming.”
From the opening tip, it was clear that Purdue was going to make Minnesota earn every point. The Gophers make a living in transition, but to do that they need to force turnovers and grab rebounds. The Boilers fought like tigers on the boards and took care of the ball - effectively taking the track shoes off the Gophers. Offensively, the Vegas Gold and Black took the ball strongly to the hoop, and were able to draw fouls on the visitors at an incredibly high rate. By the first media time out the score was 8-6 in Purdue’s favor. Led by Wright’s hot shooting and penetration, the Boilers extended their lead to 17-6 with 9 minutes elapsed in the first half. The Gophers then adjusted to playing in the half court and reeled the Boilers back in. Anchored by center Janel McCarville, they worked the ball inside and then pitched the ball out to open three point shooters. They went on a 17- 5 run, and a Shannon Schonrock three allowed them to take the lead at 22-23 with 3:59 remaining in the half. Purdue responded by again taking the ball hard to basket. Purdue regained the lead on Erika Valek’s free throws with 3:33 on the clock, and the home team would never trail again. They closed the half out with 8 unanswered points and went into the locker room up by 7, 30-23.
In the second half, both teams played like heavy weight prizefighters unwilling to give an inch. Each punch was answered by a counter punch, and the game remained close. The Boilers would go on small runs to extend the lead to 7 or 8 points. Then the Gophers would answer and pull them back within 4 or 5. McCarville did most of the damage for Borton’s charges. Janel seems destined to be on of those players that the Purdue fans love to hate. She possess the three key attributes of such a player as she’s an excellent center, but is also extremely physical and spends more time than most jawing at the officials. Purdue’s largest lead of the half, 41-31, occurred when Katie Gearlds nailed a three pointer with 14:00 minutes remaining on the clock. The Gophers quickly answered, however, and remained within striking distance. With approximately 4 minutes left in the contest, Lindsay Whalen broke out of her game-long funk. Up to that point the All-American had been held to 7 points, and had appeared to be content to distribute the ball to other players. She finally began to penetrate, and six straight points by Whalen plus a another three from Schonrock resulted in Minnesota’s narrowest margin of the half - 53-50 with 3:10 remaining. Despite the close score the Boilers never appeared rattled and continued to run their offense and play extremely tough defense. The Gophers had to resort to fouling to stop the clock, and Purdue was able to hit 10 of 12 free throws in the final three minutes to seal the victory. The final score was 65-56.
It would seem that Purdue’s offensive scheme was to get to the free throw line, as over half their points came from the charity stripe. In fact, they were the more aggressive team and Minnesota couldn’t seem to resist jumping into Purdue players if they had the ball. The Boilers were average at best from the floor, connecting on 33% of their shots and only 14% of their three point attempts.
The most impressive statistic of the game was the fact that Minnesota did not record a single fast break point. Purdue excelled at keeping the Gophers on their heels by preventing dribble penetration, and by rotating and providing help side defense in the paint. Purdue switched on all screens, something that allowed them to pressure the ball at all times when it was being worked around the perimeter. The Boilers deserve special note for controlling Lindsay Whalen. Much of this was due to Beth Jones’ dogging her around the court, but a second important factor was the fact that the Boiler packed the right side of the lane while giving Lindsay the left. True to every scouting report, she did not go to her left very well and would often pass up the opportunities or attempt to finish the left-sided shot with her right hand. The Gophers were held to 43% shooting from the field, a good percentage for most teams but well below their season average. The Gophers committed 13 turnovers, 7 of which were credited as Purdue steals.
On Sunday it was the Boilers who were crashing the glass, getting two and three shot attempts per offensive possession. They finished the game on the right end of a large rebounding margin - 38-29. Shereka Wright grabbed a game-high 10 boards, proving once more that speed and desire trumps height every time.
Purdue went from the sublime to the ridiculous over a four-day period. After only attempting 9 free throws against Northwestern, the Boilers shot an amazing 41 on Sunday. Thirty-four found the net for a total of 83%. Erika Valek and Erin Lawless were both perfect from the line.
Purdue played a very smart game. During most offensive possessions they would walk the ball up the court. On occasions, however, they’d push the ball and score a transition basket before the Gophers knew what had hit them. Curry’s charges employed this strategy just seldom enough that the Gophers never appeared to expect it. Purdue had 6 assists to 9 turnovers. While it would have been nice to record more assists and fewer miscues, only losing the ball 9 times against a team as physical as Minnesota is quire an accomplishment.
Lindsey Hicks played a very physical game without losing control. She was one of the core of players that took turns banging against McCarville, and she played an excellent defensive game. Perhaps her best play of the contest occurred half way through the second stanza when she absolutely skied over everyone to grab an offensive rebound and then put the ball back up to draw the 4th foul on the Gopher center. In all, Lindsey had a total of 7 points (1-3, 5-6 FT), 3 rebounds, a block, and a steal.
Shereka Wright was the unquestioned star of the game. A sign of an All-American caliber player is that they step up and play their best against the toughest competition in the biggest games. Only one player led her team to victory by recording the only double double on the afternoon, and it wasn’t the named Kodak in Maroon and Gold. Minnesota had the scouting report on Shereka down, and when she’d drive to the basket they’d converge to block penetration. This year, she responds to that strategy by hitting the 10-15 foot jumper. Wright does much more than score, however. She is fast enough to cut off dribble penetration and plays excellent team defense. One of her more noteworthy plays was when she drew a charging foul on Lindsay Whalen. In consensus All-American worthy line, Shereka had a game-high 24 points (6-11, 0-2 3 pt.er, 12-13 FT), a game-high 10 rebounds, and an assist to 1 turnover.
Emily Heikes as in her element, banging and pushing against the Gopher’s physical posts. She was easily the post player who exhibited the most hustle as time and again she’d get to loose balls or pull down rebounds. Although she still has trouble connecting on shots when being “bodied up”, she was rewarded for her aggressive play with 8 free throw attempts. Perhaps her most noteworthy shot was the one she didn’t take. She had received the ball at the top of the key, a common position from which the Boilers initiate their offense. As she wasn’t seen as a three-point threat, she was left completely alone. Emily began spotting up and almost hoisted up a trey before she looked to pass. On the afternoon Emily recorded 8 points (1-7, 6-8 FT), 9 rebounds, a block, and a steal to 3 turnovers.
Beth Jones failed to score, missing on all three of her attempts. Her efforts were concentrated on stopping Whalen, and she did a remarkable job in this regard. What makes Beth a good defender is her determination. She’s not as fast or athletic as Lindsay, so there were times when Whalen was able to get by her. But Beth doesn’t appear to let this phase her - she keeps up her same level of intensity the next time down the court, and this constant pressure will gradually wear down her opponent. Beth finished with 2 rebounds, 2 steals, and an assist to 2 turnovers.
Erika Valek’s strong play at the point was one of the keys to the game. She set the tone and dictated tempo throughout the contest. She was very good at sensing when the Gophers were susceptible to a quick push up the court, and when time could be milked off the clock. On many offensive possessions she was blanketed by a Minnesota defender. Not only did Erika not turn the ball over or fail to maintain her dribble at these times, but she’d continue to calmly direct the offense despite the distraction. Erika’s shooting touch from the court has not yet returned to her junior year form, but in all other aspects of the game she had an excellent outing. Erika recorded a total of 10 points (2-10, 0-2 3 pt.er, 6-6 FT), 2 rebounds, 2 assists, and a blocked shot to 1 turnvoer.
Katie Gearlds played on the perimeter, and 5-6” Shannon Schonrock looked like a seventh-grader when the 6’2” freshman was covering her. It hardly seems fair that such a short player had to move the ball when she was fronted by such a long frame. Katie appears to be out of her shooting slump, as she connected on 4 of her 9 shot attempts including the Boilers lone three-point field goal. Her assist to a cutting Erin Lawless was a thing of beauty and she played the type of complete game the Boiler faithful have come to expect from the Beech Grove native. Perhaps her most important play of the game was a kicked ball. This prevented Schonrock from getting the ball to a wide open Gopher player on the wing when they were making their final push in the second half. Katie was the third Boiler in double figures with 11 points (4-9, 1-2 3 pt.er, 2-4 FT), 4 rebounds, an assist and a steal.
Erin Lawless did not make as big a splash in the box score, but her play in the post was suburb. Time and again she’d establish superior position on the Gopher’s more experienced posts. Often she’d seal off the Minnesota player so that another Boiler could grab the rebound. Even though she is only 16 games into her collegiate career, Erin is already happy to play an extremely physical game and held her own when she was on the court. In all Erin recorded a total of 4 points (1-2, 2-2 FT), 3 rebounds, and a blocked shot to 2 turnovers.
Carol Duncan was never more than 4 inches away from Janel McCarville when she was in the game and gave the Boilers 5 minutes of solid post play. She failed to connect on her one shot attempt, but did record a steal.
Sharika Webb also recorded a total of 5 minutes on the game. Like Carol, she made the most of her time on the court and made great decisions with the ball. Her best play on the afternoon was surely her penetration into the lane and subsequent dish to a wide open Gearlds. She also was able to take the ball strongly to the basket and was rewarded with free throws for her efforts. In all Sharika recorded a total of 1 point (1-2 FT) and an assist.
Ashley Mays (tooth problem) and Sabrina Keys did not play.
Kristy Curry’s spiritual side is well known as she frequently makes references to her faith. On Sunday she lived by the Golden Rule - “Do dollar day unto others as they did dollar day unto you“. Curry did everything possible to gain a home court advantage, and this included a “Pack the Mac” promotion. Not coincidentally, Purdue was the visitor when Minnesota hosted a dollar day in Williams Arena last year. Curry excels at turning any omission or back handed compliment into a major source of disrespect, and she was more than happy to use Pam Borton’s words as locker room material in order to motivate her troops. Once again, the game preparation was second to none. Purdue knew exactly what it needed to do to beat the Gophers on both the offensive and defensive ends of the floor.
When looking at the enormous differential in fouls called and free throw attempts between the two teams (41 vs.12) it would be tempting to assume that the officials dished out a hungry man-sized meal of home cooking. This did not appear to be the case, as the differential merely reflected the fact that the Boilers took the ball to the basket aggressively while the Gophers played an extremely physical brand of defense. Indeed, the officials could have made a hand check call virtually every time Valek brought the ball up the court.
The announced attendance was 11427, and the fans were in frenzy all afternoon. The place was rocking from the opening tip; any Boiler point was greeted with thunderous applause and cheers. Towards the end of the first half it became apparent that the crowd noise was affecting the Gophers, and the fans got all the more loud in response to this positive feedback. The dollar day promotion is designed to bring new fans to the game [note to Morgan Burke - a sign or two on Northwestern Ave. and Cherry Lane directing cars to the non-John Purdue Club parking lots would do ever so much more]. First timers on Sunday were treated to a great atmosphere, remarkable performances by gritty athletes, a hard-fought victory, and wonderfully positive energy in the stands. It’s hard to imagine somebody not wanting to see another game if they were in Mackey on Sunday.
Ex-coach Lin Dunn was “in the house” as part of the Fever brain trust scouting the seniors on the two teams. Her first trip to Mackey since her removal in 1996 was a low key affair, although several folks came over to greet her. If she was watching the same game that I was, Shereka’s stock rose dramatically while Whalen’s was heading towards a bear market.
With the win the Boilers improve to 14-2 on the season and 4-1 in Big 10 play. Purdue pulled even with Minnesota into a second place tie behind Penn State, but, because the teams only play each other once this year, they now hold the tie breaker with the Gophers in the result of identical Big 10 records. The Boilers now must take care of business on the road. Their next task is tackling a tough Ohio State team in Columbus before meeting up with in-state rival Indiana in Bloomington. While the Boiler players may be only worried about the things that they can control, the Purdue fans can root for Minnesota to re-group quickly and beat Penn State next Thursday as this (assuming a Purdue win against tOSU) will result in a three-way tie for first place in the conference.
Game Ball: Shereka Wright