The Iowa Hawkeyes are one of the surprises of this year’s women's basketball world. Coming off a 16-13 2003-2004 season which included a first round NCAA exit, they were not on many radar screens at the beginning of the year. Lisa Bluder's squad made its way through a challenging pre-conference slate without a loss, however, and as they piled up the wins folks couldn't help but take notice. The Hawks entered Big 10 play as the last undefeated team in Div 1. Their perfect season came to a screeching halt when they went up against the muscle of the conference. They lost to MSU, OSU, and Penn State before securing a confidence builder against Northwestern. Coming into Sunday’s clash against the Purdue Boilermakers, the Hawkeyes knew they needed a victory if they had any hopes of ending in the top third of the conference. Coincidentally, after double digit loses to Minnesota, Notre Dame, and Penn State, the Old Gold and Black found themselves in the identical situation.
Perhaps the intense need for a W was the reason that both teams began the game tightly wound. They spent the majority of the first three minutes exchanging unforced turnovers before finally settling down and playing ball. As has been the case in most games this year, Purdue jumped out to an early lead – in this case 5-0 - before allowing the other team to reel them in and then some. With 5 minutes elapsed in the first half the score was 5-10 in the visitor's favor. At that point Purdue began to attack the basket, and scores by Lawless, Gearlds, and Wisdom-Hylton allowed the Boilers to make up the gap. The two teams then spent much of the remainder of the half exchanging baskets. Iowa is a team that wins by trying to outscore its opponent rather than manufacturing stops. They got their wish as the game was played in a loose, up and down style. This open court approach suits Aya Traore to a T, and she was key for the Boilers. During one stretch, Aya scored 7 straight Purdue points. With three minutes remaining the Hawkeyes were up by 1, 27-28. Iowa then went on a run to extend their lead to 5 before a Traore buzzer-beating lay-up pulled the Boilers to within 3 at the half, 31-34. The final sequence gave a good illustration the game's wide-open style: Emily Heikes leapt up to save a ball in bounds under the Boiler basket. The ball bounced off the head of an Iowa player right into Erin Lawless' hands. The entire Iowa team rushed at Erin as she found Tye all alone on the low block for the easy deuce.
Iowa came out of the locker room as the more intense squad. They scored 4 quick points to give them their largest lead of the day. The Boilers, meanwhile, appeared to have lost all scraps of basketball ability in the span of the 20 minute intermission. Purdue was once again staring down into the abyss of a twenty point loss. On Sunday, Katie Gearlds decided to do something about it. What she did was make key defensive plays and then hit her shots. Her elevated level of play spread to her teammates, and Purdue quickly "snapped out of it" and competed. The team regained the lead on a Gearlds triple, 42-41, with 13:45 remaining. The teams went back to exchanging leads for most of the second half. Before the game was over there would be 26 lead changes and eight ties. After Gearlds connected on her third triple in as many tries, Iowa changed its defense to a box-and-one in order to contain her. Purdue recognized this and Traore and Wisdom-Hylton had no trouble exploiting the new defensive scheme. They combined for Purdue’s next 12 points. Next, a pair of Erin Lawless buckets put the Boilers up by 7 at the final media time-out. Iowa didn’t give up, and was able to make up some ground in the final three minutes. Purdue was able to hit their free throws down the stretch, however, and held off the Hawkeyes. The final score of 79-74.
Comments of specific aspects of the game
There's a reason coaches work to put players in a position to make high-percentage shots. Those shots go in most of the time. The principle of high vs. low percentage shot selection was extremely well illustrated on Sunday. In the first half the Old Gold and Black struggled to get in an offensive flow. This resulted in players attempting to manufacture their own looks and shots taken at less than ideal times. As a result, the team connected on 13 of its 33 attempts for 39%. In the second half, the offense clicked, and in most instances a Purdue player received the ball on the low block or when they were alone behind the arc. When only high percentage shots are attempted, you get something like the 73%, 19-26 performance that was seen in the second half. One of the most heartening statistics was that the team hit 5 of its 8 three point attempts.
The Boilers have done a good job with the Hawkeye motion offense for several years, and Sunday was no exception. Iowa did connect on 47% of its attempts. However, they only attempted 48 shots to Purdue's 59. The Hawkeyes committed 22 turnovers, of which 9 were credited as Purdue steals.
Iowa pulled down 4 more rebounds than Purdue - 30-26. This disparity appears to be due to the Boiler's decision to get back on defense and prevent fast break points rather than crash the boards. As one of the Hawkeyes most successful plays was to heave the ball down the court and count on Crystal Smith being fast enough to get to the ball first, the trade off appeared to be a sound one. Erin Lawless led all players with a game-high 9 boards.
The Boilers could still stand to improve from the charity stripe as they made 10 of 15 attempts for 67% for the game. Katie Gearlds was perfect from the line as she hit both of her attempts.
Lost in the general hand wringing over Purdue's recent losing streak was the fact that from the Notre Dame game on the Boilers have become proficient at bringing the ball up the court against the press. The key person in Purdue's press breaking scheme is Emily Heikes. She dribbles the ball well enough to get it across the half court line when she's not being covered, and can generally find the open player up court if she is. The Boilers are still not extremely quick at bring the ball up, however, and they found themselves with very short shot clocks during several offensive possessions. In the second half, the team did their best job of the year as they moved the ball well and found the open player most of the time. The home team finished the game with a positive assist to turnover ratio of 22 to 17 and a mark of 22 assists to 32 made baskets.
Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton just keeps improving on herself. For the second game in a row she hit double figures in scoring and achieved a new career high in points. Lindsay has an understanding of the game which is rare in a freshman, and it allows her to get in position to make key defensive stands and blocks. Unfortunately, she turns the ball over just like a freshman, but this is sure to improve with time. Lindsay also exhibited previously unseen speed around the hoop. The Naperville native is now 1 blocked shot away from tying the freshman blocks record. No doubt she will reach that mark in the near future and before next year will put the freshman record well out of reach for years to come. On the afternoon Lindsay recorded 19 points (9-15, 1-4 FT), 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 1 steal, and 2 blocked shots to 5 turnovers.
With the output of Katie, Aya, and Lindsay, Erin Lawless was not leaned on to create points. Instead she was able to wait till good scoring opportunities presented themselves. Her 6-9 from the field output is an indication of how efficient Erin can be when she isn't in desperation mode. Erin is fast enough to keep pace with Iowa's quick cutters, and she was able to position herself for rebounds. This adds up to a very good defensive effort. In all, Erin ended up with 17 points (6-9, 1-2 3pt.er, 4-5 FT), 9 rebounds, 1 assist and 2 steals to 2 turnovers.
Emily Heikes had her hands full with Hawkeye center Jamie Cavey. After the game, Emily made a comment that she was afraid she'd hurt Cavey. This was no doubt a reference to Jamie's propensity to flop when she felt any contact. More often than not the officials would bite and Emily picked up 5 fouls before the night was out. It was encouraging to see Heikes continue to look for her shot and make an offensive contribution. Emily finished the game with a total of 6 points (3-6), 6 rebounds, 2 assists, and a steal to 2 turnovers.
Katie Gearlds looked like two different players on Sunday. To say that she struggled in the first half would be gross understatement. She missed all but one of her shots and had a great deal of difficulty holding onto and passing the ball. In the second stanza Katie came out with a great deal of determination and played her best half of the season. Not only did she seemingly made every shot she put up, she set up her teammates with spot-on passing and was extremely active on the defensive end. In an excellent outing, Katie finished with 19 points (7-16, 3-3 3 pt.ers, 2-2 FT), 2 rebounds, 6 assists, and 3 steals to 2 turnovers.
Brina Pollack started each half, but ceded starter's minutes to Sharika Webb. This wasn't so much about what Brina was doing wrong as with what Sharika was doing right. Brina takes care of the ball, but is still slow to get an offensive set initiated. Between her tentative times, Brina shows flashes of speed and aggression that bode well for her future as the starting point. Brina recorded a total of 2 points (1-3), 1 assist, 1 steal, and 0 turnovers.
Aya Traore had her coming out party against Iowa. The Hawkeyes have no player with the size and speed to beat Aya to the basket, and time and again she'd punish her slower opponents. It was not Aya’s scoring that was most impressive, however, but her poise and control. She connected on two key free throws to put the game out of reach in the final minutes, and made excellent decisions with the ball. When Iowa focused on Katie Gearlds, Aya and Lindsay played the two man game to perfection. Aya demonstrated great patience and savvy as she waited for Wisdom-Hylton to make her cuts around the basket. Aya recorded a career high with 16 points (6-7, 1-2 3 pt.er, 3-4 FT), 1 rebound, 4 assists, and 1 steal to 1 turnover.
Sharika Webb's stat line does not reflect her impact on the game. The Boiler offense flowed well when she was on the court, no doubt because she pushed the action and was able to penetrate deeply into the lane. Sharika even had a few of her no-look, razzle dazzle assists. It appears as if turnovers are the price one must pay for having Webb on the court, but if the balance of what she does remains positive, she can expect increased minutes in the future. On the afternoon Webb recorded no points, but did dish out 3 assists and block 2 shots to 4 turnovers.
Carol Duncan, like Emily Heikes, had a difficult time containing Cavey. Carol picked up 3 fouls in only 7 minutes play. She did not connect on her lone shot attempt, but did commit 2 turnovers.
Ashley Mays was inserted as a defensive stopper in the final seconds but did not dent the box score. Natasha Bogdanova did not play due to illness and joined Hannah Anderson on the bench.
Tye Jackson played for 2 minutes in the first half, just long enough to dish out 1 assist. In retrospect, this was also just enough playing time to prevent any questions from being asked after the game about why Tye was benched. When Curry was interviewed about Aya's huge game, she made some extremely peculiar comments. As quoted in the Journal and Courier, Curry said:
"We don't have any issues, but I really think it's been a gut-check time," she said. "When you lose, it's amazing to see those who have the character to rise up.
"She's [Traore] really showed a lot of maturity. She very much cares. I'm a caring and loving person and I really respond to those who do the same."
These quotes raised more questions than they answered. First, the only time a coach will say a team doesn't have issues is when they have issues. Secondly, if Aya is one of those with character and who is loving and caring; then who on the team, pray tell, does not have character and is not loving and caring? Who was the mystery player or players that Curry was obliquely criticizing in comparison to Traore? Inquiring minds were left to speculate for 12 hours. Then it was announced that Tye Jackson would be transferring to Houston and all became clear. Tye brought speed and explosive athleticism to the team, and the Boiler faithful will always be left wondering "what if…?"
In the days leading up to the game it was reported that Curry had removed the team's laundry privileges. Players would be laundering their own practice clothes until further notice. The reason given for this move was because team members had "disrespected" the hard working folks who clean the jerseys, but the no-laundry-privileges gambit is just one of several tried and true "motivational" techniques employed by coaches when their teams aren't playing up to snuff. If Kristy isn't up to speed on all of them, no doubt Jannon Roland can fill her. Nell Fortner was infamous the antics she employed along these lines when Jannon was a senior.
No coach can be successful at a major division one school without having a fierce competitive streak, something that dictates that no member of the organization will be having any fun when in the midst of a three game losing streak. For all the lip service given to staying positive and family atmosphere, no coach can afford to forget that their first priority is to win games. In this respect, Curry is no different from Pat Summitt, Geno Auriemma, or a host of other hard-nosed bench leaders.
The officiating crew and the audience had distinctly different opinions as to what constituted a travel violation. In the eyes of most of those in Mackey, a bunny step or alternating pivot feet were worthy of a whistle. The group on the floor did not appear to feel this way in most instances. While at least 2 of the three “zebras” present have officiated Final Four games, they did not appear to have a particularly good grasp of what was going on during most of the game.
The announced crowd of 8867 did not get into the game until the second half. Perhaps they spent most of the first worrying that the team was going to implode at any moment. When it became apparent that the Boilers were in the fight till the finish, the audience got into the game with them and cheered loudly down the home stretch. The crowd was a typical Sunday afternoon crowd – which is to say younger, more shrill, and generally odder than what is seen on a Thursday night. Special note must go to the fan that dressed (for no particularly discernable reason) like a giant Twinkie.
The Boilers needed this game in the worst way. Not so much to retain a sliver of hope that the Big 10 title is still possible as to realize the results of three weeks worth of great effort and gradual improvement. The best news from the Boiler’s standpoint is the emergence of a consistent scorer and defender in Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton and a fourth scoring option in Aya Traore.
The Boilers next face another very stern challenge as they travel to East Lansing to take on the MSU Spartans on Wednesday.
Game Ball: Aya Traore