Up to this point in the 2004-2005 season, the Purdue Boilermakers have been fighting themselves more than any outside opponent. In losses to UCLA and Houston, as well as in wins against Arkansas and UCSB, the team has been its own worst enemy. The squad would play in erratic spurts caused by strings of unforced (and forced) turnovers, poor shooting, and missed block outs. Much of this could be explained by the team’s youth and inexperience, and there was no question that things would improve over time. In the present, however, the Boilers had been painful to watch.
Coming into Thursday’s match-up against the DePaul Blue Demons, there was no indication whether the anticipated improvement would happen quickly or grow to become a season-long work in progress. From many perspectives, DePaul represented the ideal match-up for the erratic Boilers. Doug Bruno’s group is no walkover. Ranked #16, the team is well coached, experienced and athletic. However, there was a good chance that they might be just a little bit soft after playing 6 home games against a string of teams that ranged from poor to truly awful. In addition, a season-ending injury to one of the team’s starters had shortened the Blue Demon’s bench, thus they were not likely to have the depth to press or trap Purdue’s backcourt. This took the pressure off Boiler’s young guard corps, allowing them to gain confidence as the game wore on.
From the opening tip, it was clear that Purdue was playing as a much more cohesive unit than they had evidenced previously. In what was the first in a string of many moral victories, the Boilers scored before they committed a turnover. Curry’s charges seemed so focused on not committing turnovers and defending, however, that their offense suffered. Katie Gearlds' three pointer was the only Boiler score through the first 6 minutes of the game. A Boiler zone defense that gave Blue Demon leading scorer, Khara Smith, plenty of company in the paint was effective, but, even if guarded perfectly, the nation's leading offensive team is going to get some points. When Erin Lawless came off a screen to sink Purdue's second bucket at the 13:30 mark, the score was 12-5 in DePaul's favor. Purdue gained some momentum, and a series of quick baskets drew the home team to within 4, 15-11. Doug Bruno called a time out and steadied his charges. Purdue, meanwhile, went stone cold. They went through an 8 minute scoring drought, as the Blue Demons again slowly built up a lead. With 6:07 left in the first, Curry replaced all 5 players, and 53 seconds later a Wisdom-Hylton "J" finally broke the seal. The Boilers were so relieved to finally hit, however, that DePaul was able to score quickly in transition to maintain their margin. At the final media time out, the visitors enjoyed their largest lead of the night at 24-13. The Old Gold and Black finally gained some measure of offensive rhythm in the final three minutes, and was able to close to within 8 before the first half came to an end - 27-19.
Probably the most glaring statistic from the first half box score was the fact that Purdue had not attempted a single free throw. That can be attributed to a team's lack of aggression, and it was no doubt a huge point of emphasis during the break. The improved play of Sharika Webb was also duly noted, and she replaced Aya Traore in the starting line-up when the second stanza began. Purdue attacked the basket from the start of the second, and was immediately awarded free throws. This accomplished two things – it allowed the Boilers a chance to make up ground while the clock wasn't moving, and began to get the Blue Demons in foul trouble. Several times in the first part of the second half Purdue would narrow the lead, only to forget their transition defense and allow DePaul to stretch the margin right back with easy scores A Lawless basket pulled Curry's charges to within 4 - 44-39 with a little less than 8 minutes remaining. DePaul beat Purdue back, however, and scored easily 9 seconds later. At that point, Curry had seen enough. She took a time out and got after her players. The Boilers responded to their chewing out by upping their defensive intensity and becoming more aggressive on the offensive end. A pair of Webb free throws tied the game at the 6:45 mark, and Webb triple a minute later gave the Boilers their first lead of the evening at 47-45. DePaul immediately tied the game back up, but there was no denying the Boilers. The regained the lead for good at 5:22, although the teams remained within 5 points of each other until the final 2 minutes. At that point the Blue Demons had no choice but to foul. Purdue sank most of its free throws down the stretch to make the final score 69-61.
Comments on Specific Aspects of the Game:
Offensively, the Boilers were a living demonstration of the law of averages. In the first half, despite adequate ball movement and well run sets, many of the open looks didn't fall. This resulted in a 33% success rate. In the second half, all the good shots hit their mark, and most of the not-so-good shots did as well. In all, 13 of 19 attempts, including 2 of 4 three point attempts, connected for a 68% average.
Purdue opened in a zone defense, although they were most effective when they went to man to man in the second half. The Blue Demons committed 15 turnovers of which 9 were recorded as Purdue steals. The low point of Purdue's defensive effort was their inconsistency at getting back quickly to prevent transition baskets. The high point was the job done by Purdue's posts on Khara Smith, DePaul's leading scorer. She was consistently double teamed when she was on the low block, and made only 4 of her 17 attempted field goals.
Purdue had its share of troubles finding their box outs and rebounding out of the zone. After being out-rebounded soundly in the first half, they were able to make up ground in the second. At the end of the game, however, DePaul had a 38-30 edge in this category.
Purdue made hay when they got to the line in the second half, connecting on 22 of 29 of their charity tosses for 76%. Aya Traore was perfect from the line going 2-2.
The Boilers looked like a completely different team from the one that was averaging more than 20 turnovers a game in their previous 6 outings. The team was in synch - patient on offense with few forces or ill-considered passes. As a team the Old Gold and Black had a one to one assist to turnover ratio with 14 of each. A huge step forward for the young Boilers.
While other players have been fluctuating wildly, Erin Lawless is consistently putting up double figures. Most encouraging was Erin's ability to hold onto the ball and handle entry passes, as she had no turnovers in the game. After Curry's second half time out, Lawless played excellent post defense. Erin finished with 16 points (7-12, 2-3 FT), 3 rebounds, an assist, 2 blocks, and a steal.
Emily Heikes picked up 4 fouls in her 18 minutes of play. Perhaps this was the reason she appeared more tentative than she had been in earlier contests. Emily’s physical style was effective in pushing Smith out of her game. On the night Emily had no points (0-2), 4 rebounds, and an assist to 1 turnover.
Tye Jackson proved that she was human after all. After breezing out to become Purdue's leading scorer, she couldn't find the ocean from the beach on Thursday. Tye looked to be a bit stiff, no doubt due to her injured ankle, and most of her shots were short. Jackson's defense is excellent for a freshman, and she was able to contribute when she was on the court. In all, Tye had 1 point (0-7, 0-5 3 pt.er, 1-3 FT), 2 rebounds, 2 steals and 3 turnovers.
Katie Gearlds finally had the high scoring game everyone was expecting since the season began. She looked for her shot in the second half, and was hitting from everywhere, guarded or not. Katie continues to excel in other areas of the game as well, as she led the team in steals with three and recorded 5 assists to 2 turnovers. In addition to the aforementioned stat.s Katie had a game-high 21 points (6-8, 2-2 3 pt.er, 7-8 FT) and 2 rebounds.
Aya Traore experienced her own small victory as she only was credited with one turnover. As one of the Boiler's most error-prone players this represents a large improvement. Aya did not do much that was captured in the box score, but she adds a great deal of energy to the team and is a disruptive presence defensively. Aya finished with 2 points (0-3, 2-2 FT), 2 rebounds, and a turnover.
Sharika Webb had a break out game. Her best performance in a Purdue uniform by a large margin, Sharika ran the team from the point with a previously unseen savvy, patience, and confidence. She also set the emotional tone for the group, and kept her teammates pumped up as they played from behind. Webby's performance did not go unnoticed as she started the second half, and one feels she has earned the starting point guard slot in future outings. Sharika has always been a pass-first point, but on Thursday she demonstrated the ability to shoot and finish when that was what the team needed. If Sharika can keep up this high level of performance when being pressed and trapped, Purdue is in very good shape indeed. In all, Sharika recorded 12 points (2-3, 1-1 3 pt.er, 7-8 FT), a team-high 6 rebounds, a team-high 7 assists, and 2 steals to 3 turnovers.
Perhaps radio announcer Tim Newton said it best: "Natasha Bogdanova may not have all the moves yet, but she's already 6'4"." Natasha must be a very hard worker, as she already appears much more polished than she did at the beginning of the season. Natasha's aggression and height stand her in good stead, but she needs to learn how to establish better position to be a more effective rebounder. There's no mistaking her effort and potential, however. In 10 minutes, Natasha scored 2 points (0-1, 2-3 FT), 1 rebound, and a blocked shot.
Ashley Mays has the athleticism to apply ball pressure when Tye Jackson is not on the court. She did not connect on her shot attempt, but did pull down 2 rebounds.
Carol Duncan played extremely well during Purdue's recent West Coast swing, and she was one of the first players off the bench in the first half. Unfortunately, she did not take advantage of her early opportunities, missing an open shot attempt badly, and thus did not get any late opportunities to redeem herself. If Carol can develop more consistency from game to game, she will be much more valuable to the team. In addition to her shot attempt, Carol pulled down a rebound and committed a turnover.
Perhaps Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton played as well as she did because she wanted to perform well against familiar Chicago players, but more likely it was because her natural talents cannot be denied. Lindsay had a fantastic game. On offense, she connected on almost everything she put up. It is Lindsay's defense, however, that is most impressive. She is tall and athletic enough to get into opposing shooter's heads, and DePaul players became increasingly flustered as WH blocked shots and corralled rebounds. Even as Curry shortens her bench, Lindsay is sure to continue to see major minutes. Lindsay finished with 15 points (7-8, 1-2 FT), 5 rebounds, 1 steal, and 4 blocked shots to 2 turnovers.
Brina Pollock, Kiki Freeman, and Hannah Anderson did not play.
Curry struck the right balance on Thursday – being up-beat and positive for much of the game, but “kicking hinney” when needed. Curry was happier than anyone at Sharika’s performance, but she couldn’t help expressing her hope that that much effort would be seen during practices as well. Coming out of this game, Curry has a much clearer picture of what she’s got with this team. The bench is starting to shorten, and as the year goes on it is bound to contract even more. Curry’s statement that she wants Katie Gearlds to shoot more and not look to pass can be taken as evidence that the KG point guard experiment is coming to an end.
It was the good, the bad, and the even worse on Thursday night. The always solid Lisa Mattingly worked along side the always weak Bob Trammell and Dennis Mayer. The crowd was outraged by the obvious instances of traveling and double dribbling that were not called on DePaul players, and relieved when they let the same infractions slide on the Purdue side of the ball.
I have been remiss in not mentioning Mackey’s new system of scoreboards. The Ms.Pac-Man graphics of the original overhead score board have been replaced with TV screens that show replays and game highlights. Before the Boilers take the court, a neat little Rise and Shine montage is shown and players are featured in video clips throughout the contest. Rolling stat.s are kept on the screens mounted on the walls around Mackey. During stoppages of play the side screens display a very confusing set of numbers which must be a various players’ accumulated statistics to date. Aside from that one distraction, the new system is a welcome addition and adds to one’s enjoyment of the game. Just as enjoyable is something that is absent this year. Gone are all the “catch a rubber chicken in your pants” type diversions during media time outs. Those were annoying at best, and they are not missed at all.
The announced crowd of 8254 sat in pained silence during the first 20 minutes, but came to life and cheered loudly during Purdue’s comeback and win in the second.
The collected Boiler nation can sleep soundly at night again knowing that its women’s basketball team (if not the men’s) will be alright. They may easily take a few steps back during the course of the season, but overall there is no doubt that they are heading in the right direction as a team, and have the potential to make a little noise before the year ends in Indianapolis. The Boilers next take on a scrappy Western Michigan team. In the friendly confines, however, they can be expected to prevail.
Game Ball: Sharika Webb