There is a saying that goes: No one ever has it "all together…." That's like trying to eat "once and for all." The aphorism is attributed to Marilyn Grey, but, if she hadn't coined it, Purdue head coach Kristy Curry could have said as much. All year the Boilers have worked to correct one set up problems only to see others jump up to take their place. The team has bumped along as they have addressed the turnover issue, the point guard puzzle, and the rebounding slump. Along the way there have been chemistry problems, inconsistent effort, and ever-present injuries. At no time has everything come together for the inexperienced squad, and the Boiler Nation is impatiently waiting for things to "click" for the Old Gold and Black. After Thursday's disappointment against the Illinois Fighting Illini, that wait has been extended for at least 3 more days.
To be sure, the Boilers experienced their share of positives on Thursday. Emily Heikes delivered her best performance of the year. The senior's ability to step up and lead from example has been questioned in past games. On Thursday she scored a season high 13 points. More importantly, she hustled every second she was on the court - diving for loose balls and battling under the hoop for rebounds. In one notable sequence, she knocked Curry off her feet as she flung herself out of bounds in pursuit of the rock.
Aya Traore was able to harness her athletic talents - scoring a career high 20 points while playing within the team's offensive and defensive schemes. Curry shortened her bench to the extreme, using only 7 players on the night. Perhaps this was the reason why the team experienced fewer of the momentum swings that have plagued them in the past.
The Boilers re-discovered their post defense - a sour spot in recent games. Against Illinois Purdue scored 32 points in the paint to only 26 from the visitors. Turnovers have been the Old Gold and Black's largest weakness all season. Not on Thursday. The team only committed 14 to the Illini's 22, and outscored Teresa Grentz's charges 22 to 12 in the points-off-turnovers department.
So, how can a team that has a 16:14 assist to turnover ratio lose a game by 10 points? Easy. They can fail to score. On Thursday the Boilermakers hit only 30% of their attempts from the field, including a woeful 1-8 (12%) from down town. Starters Lawless, Gearlds, and Wisdom-Hylton combined to go 5-32 on the night. To make matters worse, Erin and Lindsay have been the Boiler's most consistent players all year, and their production is counted on. On Thursday they appeared to be trying too hard - their shots were often forced and rushed, and the result of such shooting is predictable.
Katie Gearlds literally has no leg to stand on as she sprained her "good" ankle and was severely hampered all game. In the post game interview, Curry remarked that Katie told her that she was OK to play. But, Curry continued, "When she says she can go, she's got to go." This is the first indication the head coach has given that Katie has gotten to the point that her injuries are making her more of a liability than an asset on the court.
Nobody associated with the team has yet admitted that the point guard question has been answered for the Boilers this year, but it has. Unfortunately, the answer is: D) none of the above. Sharika Webb remains too inconsistent to allow the Boilers to sustain runs or to settle down in the half court. A sequence that is a microcosm of Sharika's world this year occurred in the first half. Webb broke up an Illini play by stealing the ball in the open court. The steal displayed her strength and athletic ability, as few players could have made it. Sharika then began looking for a releasing teammate so that she could initiate a fast break. The person Webb found was on the other side of 3 orange and blue defenders, however, and her forced pass was easily intercepted. Sharika's play has improved since the season began, and coming off the bench does seem to agree with her. Perhaps because it gives her an opportunity to calm down and get an appreciation for the flow of the game. Brina Pollack finished her two fast break opportunities, but her lack of strength and inexperience was exploited by the Illini defenders.
Despite the Boiler's shortcomings, they compete hard and gave it all they could on Thursday. They were able to keep the game close until the final 2 minutes, and the 10 point differential was due to the Illini being able to knock down their free throws when Purdue started to deliberately foul. The difference in the game was Illini senior Angelina Williams. Her ability to create her own shot and elevate over defenders allowed her to score despite being pressured. She went off for 24 points on 9-17 shooting, and she was solely responsible for putting the game out of reach in the second half.
The Illini won in Mackey for the first time since 1984. It marks the first time Curry has lost to the squad, and the first time Grentz has won on Purdue's home court. The Boiler loss means that another first is becoming a very real possibility. To date, Purdue is the only Big 10 team that has not played in the opening round of the Big 10 tournament. They will need to improve on their 5-5 Big 10 record if they hope to avoid playing on Thursday in Conseco. The team's overall 12-9 record looks to be heading for the wrong side of the NCAA bubble as well, and looming dates against Penn State, Ohio State, and Minnesota stand between the team and a solid claim for a ticket to the big dance.
What is most frustrating for the fans, and no doubt to the coaching staff and the players as well is that the talent and potential are there. This has the makings of a great team. But before the Boilers will be able to take advantage of their strengths and knock off a higher ranked team or two they will need to "put it all together," and that is something this young team has found to be nearly impossible to do.
Game Ball: Emily Heikes