Big 10 Championship Game
In a week of unprecedented upsets, the Big 10 conference tournament held true to form. First and second seeds Penn State and Purdue made it through the first two rounds and met on Monday night in the Conseco Fieldhouse to determine the tournament champion. The winner would receive the NCAA automatic bid and a new banner and trophy to show for the victory. The game meant much more than that to the two teams, however. A NCAA berth is already a certainty for both clubs, and the hardware was pretty much beside the point. PSU and Purdue are the cream of the Big 10 crop virtually every year, and have become fierce rivals. The Boilers came into the game having something to prove after losing twice to the Lady Lions in the regular season. Rene Portland’s charges, meanwhile, wanted to prove once and for all that they were the dominant team in the Big 10 this year.
The game began and ended as a grind-it-out, defensive struggle. Every possession was a dog fight. Penn State drew first blood, and a Jess Brungo jump shot put the Lady Lions up by two at 2-4 after Wright free throws tied it up. At the first media time out the score was 4-6 in the visiting team’s favor. Purdue was able to claw their way back into the lead on the strength of a Valek jump shot, but Brungo again answered to put the Lions ahead once again. Penn State remained in the lead for the remainder of the half. The largest margin they enjoyed was 6 points, and the teams went into the locker room with the score 25-20 in Penn State’s favor.
Purdue emerged from the locker room the more aggressive team. Penn State is an excellent and balanced ball club, however, and they made the Boilers earn every point. A Katie Gearlds trey pulled the Boilers into a tie at 30-30 with 14 minutes remaining. It seemed that Portland always had a quick hitter in her bag when Purdue got too close. Jess Strom immediately put the Lady Lions back into the lead. The Boilers then looked to two unlikely players to get them back into the game – freshmen Erin Lawless and Katie Gearlds. The hit back to back triples to give Purdue the lead 43-41 with 7:24 to play. The Lady Lions were able to tie it up 2 minutes later at 46-46. Erin and Katie each scored again to put the Boilers back on top 50-48. With a little over three minutes to go, Shereka Wright scored her first points from the floor when she nailed a three point basket from the top of the key. This put Purdue up by four, and the Boilers managed to cling to a narrow lead until the final minute of play. With 22 seconds left, Jess Strom hit two free throws to make the score 58-57 in Penn State’s favor. Penn State put on its full court press, but Purdue had little trouble breaking it. Shereka Wright was attempting to move the ball around the perimeter when Jess Strom gambled on a steal and jumped right into Shereka, knocking her down. It was the easiest call to make all night, and it put Purdue in the bonus with 4.8 seconds remaining in the game. In the midst of confusion about where the other Purdue players should stand and a Penn State time out Shereka sank her free throws to put the Vegas Gold and Black up by one point. Penn State raced the ball up the court, but Shereka had the presence of mind to stay with Tanisha Wright every step of the way. S. Wright blocked T. Wright’s final shot attempt and the Boilers emerged victorious 59-58.
Comments on Specific Aspects of the Game:
The first half of the game started with the Boilers shooting very poorly from the field. Every offensive set was painful to watch, as the team went 6-25 from the floor. Thing picked up in the second, primarily because the freshmen were able to connect of their relatively uncontested shots. This resulted in 50% shooting from the floor in the second half and a game total of 37%. The Boilers shot extremely well from behind the arc and connected on 54% of their attempts from “down town.”
For the second game in a row, the Boilers spend the majority of the game in a straight man to man defense. Penn State excels at finding the open player, and any time a Boiler cheated off her player the team was burned by the sharp shooting of Brungo, Mazzante, or Strom. Penn State committed 13 turnovers,5 of which were credited as Purdue steals.
The Boilers were out rebounded by a 34-29 margin. When the Gold and Black really needed a board in the waning minutes of the game, however, they managed to grab the ball. Erika Valek’s rebound of a missed Mazzante three pointer with a little over 2 minutes to go and the Boilers up by 2 points may have been the biggest board of the night. Shereka Wright was credited with 10 rebounds on the Conseco score board, but when the official box score came out she had only been given 9. Whether the true number was 9 or 10, it was the most of any Boiler player and tied Reicina Russell for game high honors.
From the opening tip it was clear that the Boilers would need every possible point. The Boilers responded by approaching each free throw with a great deal of concentration and as a result cashed in on 15 of 16 attempts for 94%. Shereka Wright’s final two free throws were made while every other Boiler stood behind the half court line. It was revealed that this move was not made to show the extent of the coaches’ confidence in Shereka or to prevent any possibility of a foul called on the rebound in the event of a miss. Rather, it was the result of “major” miscommunication of the part of the coaches. Shereka, as always, was completely unfazed by the odd player positioning and calmly sunk both shots.
The Boilers recorded 14 assist to 16 turnovers as a team. Many of the turnovers were unforced, and it appeared as if the players were too uptight to settle down in many instances. One of the most notable differences between Purdue’s play on Monday and their previous outing in State College was their improved ability to handle Penn State’s defensive schemes. On many instances the Lady Lions appeared to be in a full court, half court, or trapping defense. The Boilers handled this easily every time, and in no instance did a player attempt to dribble through a screen or a trap
Lindsey Hicks was bitten by the poor shot bug in the first half as were her teammates. She did hit some tough floating jumpers in the second. Lindsey also played very well defensively. She has certainly picked an excellent time to elevate the level of her game, and one hopes she continues to play well in the NCAA tourney. In all, Lindsey had a total of 9 points (4-10, 0-2 3 pt.er, 1-1 FT), 3 rebounds, and a block to 2 turnovers.
Shereka Wright was the focus of the Lady Lion defense. Two or three white shirts collapsed on her every time she attempted to take the ball to the hole. Penn State devoted everything they had to making sure that Shereka did not slash to the basket, and by and large they were successful. She was held to 4 points in the first half, all from the free throw line. A sign of a great player is that they put up their usual numbers despite having a horrible game as they find other ways to get their points. When it was obvious that the drive wasn’t there, Shereka began looking for the open player and dishing off. And when she knew her team needed a big play, she calmly dribbled to the top of the key and hit a three pointer in perfect rhythm. Perhaps her most important play of the night was getting back immediately after the go ahead free throw and blocking Tanisha Wright’s final shot. Shereka finished with 15 points (2-10, 1-2 3 pt.er, 10-10 FT), 9 rebounds, 2 assists, a block, and a steal, to 1 turnover.
Perhaps because of the importance of the game, Emily reverted to her pre-conference habit of whiffing on lay-ups. First she’d throw the ball up too strong, then, in an attempt to compensate, she’d leave it short. Her lone basket in 6 attempts was an offensive board and quick put back. As is the case in most games played against ranked opponents, Emily was asked to defend a player who was much taller. As is also the case in most games against ranked opponents, Emily more than held her own and was able to take the opponents center out of her comfort zone and away from the low block. Emily’s tie up on a driving Penn State player was perhaps her finest moment. Emily finished the evening with 2 points (1-6), 7 rebounds, a blocked shot and a steal.
Beth Jones shared her Mazzante defensive assignment with all the Boilers, and she spent timing covering the much faster Tanisha Wright a great deal of the time. Beth did not appear over matched when she pulled this defensive assignment. Beth’s largest contributions were on the offensive end, however, as she was able to find open players on the low block and also kept the Penn State defense honest by knocking down her open looks. Beth recorded 5 points (2-4, 1-2 3 pt.er), 3 rebounds, 2 assists, and no turnovers.
Erika Valek received the brunt of the “can’t handle a press” criticism over the past week, so she deserves special mention for handling it so effortlessly on Monday night. As soon as Tanisha Wright took 5 steps towards her, Erika would pass the ball up the court and out of trouble. All of Erika’s buckets were timely and she demonstrated a great knack for finding the open shooter. Erika’s greatest contributions were on the defensive end. After being responsible for a turnover due to a three second lane violation, Erika was able to establish position and corral the ensuing Penn State rebound. In another instance she had position on Reicina Russell. The 6’6” post didn’t need to go over Erika’s back so much as put up her hands to grab a rebound. Erika snared it too, however, and refused to let go resulting in a jump ball being called. Erika finished the evening with 4 points (2-7, 0-1 3 pt.er), 3 rebounds, 6 assists, and a steal to 3 turnovers.
Ten Big 10 coaches must break out in a cold sweat imagining the next three years of instant offense every time Katie Gearlds nails another pure three pointer. Freshmen aren’t supposed to go 5-8 in the big games. But Katie did, and scored in what appeared to be effortless fashion. She was the Boiler’s go to player in the second half, and she did not disappoint. Perhaps the biggest key to the win was Katie’s “refuse to lose” attitude. Katie finished the night with 14 points (5-8, 3-3 3 pt.er, 1-1 FT), a block and 2 steals to 4 turnovers.
Erin Lawless joined Katie Gearlds by stepping up and refusing to lose. Erin made some very big plays in the game. Her three point basket was instrumental in turning the momentum the Boiler’s way down the stretch. Erin also plays better post defense every game and has been able to limit the personal fouls without becoming less aggressive. Erin was the third Purdue player in double figures with 10 points (3-6, 1-1 3 pt.er, 3-4 FT) and she added 4 rebounds, a blocked shot, and a steal, to 2 turnovers.
Carol Duncan, Ashley Mays, and Sharika Webb did not play.
Kristy Curry coached an excellent game. The second Penn State go a little run going she’d slow things down by calling a time out. The Boilers ran a play several times which produced a wide open shot from 15 feet away. Unfortunately for the Boilers, the shooter usually missed, but you can’t fault the coaching staff for that. The only potentially disastrous call from the bench – failing to place rebounders for the front end of the final one and one – didn’t affect the game’s outcome as Shereka nailed both shots.
As has been the case with every tournament game, the officials “let ‘em play” and called very few fouls despite the large amount of contact that occurred all over the court. The crowd didn’t like it, but the players and coaches didn’t appear to have a complaint with the way the game was called.
The 9417 in attendance was a new Big 10 Tourney record for a single game. A new tournament attendance record of 37,635 was set as well this year. About 80% of the crowd on Monday night was cheering for the Boilers, but Penn State brought a very sizeable contingent as well. The Penn State band deserves special mention. One of their players was dressed up as Rene Portland with a blonde wig and wool suit. The other band members were “dressed” as Penn State players with blue and white body paint comprising the uniforms. In a crowning touch, the female band members save “Rene” wore corn row braids just like the actual players.
Over the course of the game, the ESPN announcers went from “the door to a number one seed just got a little wider” to “Purdue should be considered for a number one seed” to “Purdue just sewed up a number one seed.” There are others who are less convinced that Purdue will be named a top seed in the up coming NCAA tournament, but it is all but certain that they will be no less than a two.
There is no arguing that the Boilers have one of the best records in college basketball this year. They are the only team in the country that has only lost to teams in the Top 5, and their 27-3 record ties or betters every other top team. The win over Penn State has propelled the Boilers to number 4 in the national polls, and they now await Selection Sunday to learn where they will be sent in the NCAA tournament.
Game Ball: Katie Gearlds and Erin Lawless