Michigan State University is one of 7 Big 10 schools that has named a head coach since Kristy Curry's arrival in West Lafayette. Each new hire has been met with a renewed optimism and declarations that wins, rankings, and NCAA appearances were sure to follow. And while many of the new coaches have yet to turn around their school’s fortunes, Joanne McCallie appears to be up to the task of taking the Michigan State Spartans to that coveted next level. She recruits better than most and teaches her charges a very tough match-up zone defense and an opportunistic offense. The Spartans were playing well enough this year to merit a Top 20 ranking, and entered Sunday's contest agasint the Purdue Boilermakers tied for third place in the conference. Like the Boilers, MSU is playing better on the road than at home, the sole black mark on their 5-1 Big 10 road record was a two point loss at Penn State.
From the opening tip it was clear that MSU was no fluke and that the visitors in green and white were ready to play. Lindsey Hick's jump shot with 90 seconds elapsed gave the Boilers the first points of the game. The Spartans then answered when Kristin Haynie sunk two free throws a minute later, and went ahead on a Kelli Roehrig old-fashioned three point play a minute after that. For the majority of the first half Michigan State steadily built up a lead behind their jump shots and penetration moves. The Boilers, meanwhile, had trouble finding the net and compounded their woes by missing most of their free throws. With 8:15 left to play, the visitors enjoyed a 9-point lead, 11-20. It was then that Purdue upped its defensive intensity. Two quick MSU turnovers and subsequent Boiler scores allowed Curry's charges to close some ground on the visitors. The aggressive penetration of Kristin Haynie kept the Spartans in the lead, however, and the teams went into the locker room with the Spartans ahead - 22-26.
The second half started just like the first ended, with a Haynie lay-up extending the Spartan lead to 6 points. With 18 minutes left in the game, Katie Gearlds was subbed in. She played the shooting guard while Shereka Wright moved up to the power forward position. This combination proved to be a winning strategy. Neither player left the game again, and Purdue slowly closed the gap. An offensive rebound and put back by Emily Heikes tied the game at 28 all with 16:46 remaining. Katie Gearlds' three point basket 32 seconds later put the Boilers up for the first time since the score was 2-0. Shereka Wright then went to work, and was able to beat the Spartans to the basket on several offensive possessions. By the 11:12 media time out, the Boilers enjoyed a 40-35 lead. With 6:10 remaining in the contest, an Erika Valek triple gave the Boilers their largest lead of the afternoon - 53-40. Those who read the columns title will notice that the Boilers only scored 6 more points in the remainder of the contest. The scoring drought was the result of missed shots and a string of turnovers. Many of the miscues occurred in an effort to force the ball down low, and several combination of Purdue players were equally ineffective at running that play. The Spartans weren’t exactly lighting it up, either, but they were able to score enough points to reel in the Boilers. With 1:45 left, Haynie brought McCallie's charges to within 5 points at 55-50. Rene Haynes then connected on a quick three pointer, and suddenly it was a two point game. In the ensuing Purdue possession, Shereka Wright penetrated the lane. When the entire Spartan team converged on her she found Valek all alone behind the arc. Erika hit nothing but net, and gave the Boilers a little breathing room at 58-53. Haynes then pulled the trigger yet again, and with 11 seconds remaining the Spartans were again back within 2 points. Purdue got the ball inbounds and played some keep away before MSU fouled Emily Heikes with a little less than four seconds to go. She hit one of her two free throws to put the Boilers up by 3 points - 59-56. Haynes' desperation half-court shot bounced around the rim but then fell out at the buzzer, allowing the Boiler faithful to breath a sigh of relief and enjoy the senior day activities.
Comments of Specific Aspects of the Game:
For the most part, the Boilers handled the zone defense extremely well. Rather than succumb to the temptation to jack up the first open perimeter shot, the Vegas Gold and Black made the Spartans play defense until deep into the shot clock, using skip passes to shift the zone. For the game the home team shot 38% from the field including 35% from behind the arc.
Purdue employed its signature full court pressure- one in which they make the opposing players pay attention and work to bring the ball up the court without gambling on steals. MSU committed 10 turnovers, of which 3 were credited as Purdue steals.
The knock on zone defenses is that it is extremely difficult to rebound well out of them, and Sunday's game certainly appeared to bear this out. Despite the fact that the Spartans played well and defended aggressively, they were no match for the Boiler players that swooped in from the guard positions without anyone "putting a body on them" to grab boards. As a result, Purdue snared 10 more boards than the Spartans - 36-26. Shereka Wright led all players with 12 rebounds.
A good part of Purdue's scoring woes in the first half could be traced to their 1-6 free throw shooting. They were able to right the ship in the second half, connecting of 11-13 of their charity tosses. This resulted in an overall 63% mark for the game. Erin Lawless was the only member of the 100% club on the afternoon.
Purdue only committed 10 turnovers, an excellent number. The team recorded 14 assists on 20 made baskets. The squad handled the zone defense extremely well, and with the exception of the final five minutes did not appear to be forcing passes.
Lindsey Hicks was extremely active under the boards, and played heady defense when she was on the court. She appeared to be snake bit by the referees as several times she appeared to be mugged only to have a jump ball or no call as the result. In all, Lindsey recorded 5 points (1-4, 0-1 3 pt.er, 3-4 FT), 6 rebounds, and 3 assists to 2 turnovers.
At the end of the day, it could be said that Purdue won because they have Shereka Wright and the Spartans did not. Shereka Wright gave one of her best performances of the year. She scored when the team needed a score. Shereka didn't force anything, however, and could find open players when she was double or triple teamed. Wright played exceptional defense and on two occasions was able to stay with a penetrating Spartan and then block their shot out of bounds. In the political selection processes that govern player-of-the-year selections Shereka is unlikely to get the attention she deserves this season. However, she is without a doubt the best player in the Big 10 this year, is worthy of being named a first team All-American, and is one of the leaders for player of the year consideration. Wright's stellar line reflects her all-around game as she recorded a game-high 24 points (10-17, 0-1 3 pt.er, 4-7 FT), a game-high 12 rebounds, 3 assists, and 4 blocked shots to 2 turnovers.
Emily Heikes played her trademark blue collar game. She was particularly effective gaining position on MSU's taller post players to draw over-the-back calls. Emily's success from the free throw line was particularly welcome as some of her teammates struggled in this regard. Emily finished with 5 points (1-2, 3-4 FT), 5 rebounds, and an assist on the afternoon.
Beth Jones contribution to the team can be measured by looking at MSU leading scorer Lindsay Bowen's point total. The 40% shooter scored 3 points on 1-10 shooting. Her low out put can be at least partially attributed to Beth covering her like a blanket. Perhaps because her mind was focused on her defensive assignment, Beth failed to connect on her 5 shot attempts. She is very good at finding Shereka Wright under the basket, a large reason she recorded a team-high 4 assists. Beth also recorded a steal and a turnover.
Erika Valek only connected on 3 of her 8 shot attempts, but each one was a crucial make for the Boilers. Erika had one of her better games of the year, as she was in control at all times and made very good decisions with the ball. On several occasions the Spartans attempted to force turnovers by trapping Erika or pressing the ball, and in every instance she was up to the task of maintaining her dribble while evading the defenders. As the Spartans drew close at the end of the game, Erika exhibited a true "refuse to lose" attitude and did what it took to ensure that the Boilers would emerge victorious. Erika recorded a total of 9 points (3-8, 3-6 3 pt.er), 6 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 steals to 2 turnovers.
Katie Gearlds is now firmly established as Purdue's second scoring option after Shereka. She played 32 minutes on Sunday, and was on the court for the final 18 minutes of the game. Other teams are just beginning to notice, it seems, and she still gets wide open looks on a regular basis. The freshman has exhibited nerves of ice, as she regularly knocks down key buckets at crucial times. During her extended minutes Katie exhibited her inexperience a time or two, and she has a long way to go before she could be considered a defensive stopper, but there's no questioning that Purdue becomes a very dangerous team with Katie on the floor. Katie finished with a total of 14 points (5-12, 4-6 3 pt.er), 1 rebound, and 2 turnovers.
Erin Lawless was the only other bench player to get extended minutes as she saw 15 minutes of action. Erin's shot didn't fall, but she played well in all other aspects of the game. Erin was particularly active under the glass, and evidenced very nice court vision when dishing out an assist. Erin recorded 2 points (0-4, 0-1 3 pt.er, 2-2 FT), 3 rebounds, an assist, and a blocked shot.
Carol Duncan and Sharika Webb each played for two minutes in the first half. No doubt the closeness of the game kept the duo on the bench in the second. Carol failed to dent the box score during her time on the court while Sharika pulled down a rebound and took a shot and two free throws. Ashley Mays did not play.
The Boilers were extremely well prepared for MSU's zone defense. They demonstrated a great deal of patience when working the ball around the zone, and this was undoubtedly due to the efforts of the coaches. One of the sins that would earn a player a quick trip to the bench on Sunday was to take a quick perimeter shot. One of the reasons the Boilers let a large lead slip at the end of the game may have been due to fatigue on the part of Valek, Wright, and Gearlds. One wonders if more liberal substitution earlier in the period would have allowed these key players some more rest before the final push.
Curry should be given a great deal of credit for inviting Lin Dunn back into the Boiler family and honoring those who paved the way for the current players.
There appeared to be a large number of no-calls in the game. On several occasions players would be banged around like billiard balls without a whistle. One thing that is absolutely certain is that there are no “Shereka Rules” in the Big 10 when it comes to getting calls. It is surprising how much contact is allowed against one of the league's premier players.
The official attendance was 9980, a disappointing number for a Sunday afternoon game. Those that did attend were treated to a competitive game and several special events. The annual alumni game took place prior to the tip off. During half time the 1994 Final Four team and 25th anniversary teams were recognized to loud cheers. The afternoon ended with an emotional salute to the seniors. One by one they were introduced with their families. Each received a framed jersey with their number, flowers, and an unlimited supply of hugs from the coaches and their underclass teammates.
With the win the Boilers improve to 23-2 on the season. They have moved up to fourth place in the national rankings, and even received a few first place votes.
Penn State also won Sunday afternoon, so the Boiler remains tied for first place in the Big 10 with the Lady Lions. Penn State will be taking on MSU in East Lansing on Thursday, and the Spartans certainly played well enough against Purdue to make victory a distinct possibility. The Boilers can only control the outcome of the games they participate in, however, and they will need to hold serve against the visiting Iowa Hawkeyes on Thursday if they hope to contend for the Big 10 title.
Game Ball: Shereka Wright