The holiday season is defined by its rich traditions, so it seems only fitting that the Big 10 conference begins its New Year with a tradition of its own. The Big 10 conference's tradition is to begin play in women's basketball by pitting the Purdue Boilermakers against the Wisconsin Badgers. The two teams have opened conference play against each other 5 times in the past 7 years. The schedulers aren't totally bound by the past, however, as Thursday's match-up represented merely the second time in 7 seasons that the Boilers began conference play in Mackey Arena. Shortly after the game began it became pretty clear that the Boilers were a much better team than the Badgers, and it also became clear that they were extremely likely to emerge victorious no matter where or when the two teams competed.
Purdue opened in a tight man to man defense and, for the first 10 minutes, absolutely smothered the Badgers. Offensively, Purdue was extremely adept at finding the open player and spreading the points. At the 10:10 mark the score was 18-2 in the home team's favor with 6 different Boilers chipping in for at least 2 points. Then both teams relaxed. Wisconsin relaxed in a good way - they settled down and began taking care of the ball and hitting their open shots. Purdue relaxed in a bad way - losing their defensive intensity and turning the ball over when attempting entry passes into the post. The Badgers made up most of the deficit, and with 6:30 left to play they were only down 5, 18-13. The Boilers responded by attacking the basket and earned three quick trips to the charity stripe resulting in 6 quick points. They took advantage of this new-found momentum to extend the lead again, and went into the locker room at the half ahead by 9, 31-22.
In the second half the Boilers evidenced that they have, indeed, experienced some degree of "learning and growing" over the course of the season. Unlike earlier games, they retained a high degree of intensity throughout the second stanza. Purdue switched to a zone for much of the second half, and the Badgers appeared content to launch long distance shots over it - attempting 14 treys in the final 20 minutes. The 5 that connected were not nearly enough to catch the home team. As Lisa Stone's charged tired, Purdue was able to force more and more turnovers and score lay-ups in transition. Aya Traore, in particular, took advantage on several occasions. For one of the few times this season, Purdue soundly outscored its opponent in both the first and second halves as it recorded 46 second-half points to Wisconsin's 35. The final score was 77-57 in the Boiler's favor.
Comments on Specific Aspects of the Game:
While it would be premature to call the Boiler offense a well-oiled machine, they are showing flashes of machine-like precision. The team hit 53% of their shot attempts on the game, including a blistering 63% from "downtown." Particularly encouraging was the balance in the offense. All five starters and Jodi Howell scored in double figures.
The Boilers spent most of the first half in an extremely effective man to man defense. Although the intensity waned as the score differential increased, the team can now at least be counted on to know who they are supposed to guard and to generally be in the correct location most of the time. This represents an improvement from last year's team. The Badgers committed 18 turnovers, of which 7 were credited as Purdue steals.
Purdue enjoyed a slight edge in the rebounding department, pulling down 33 boards compared to 30 for the Badgers. There is still room for improvement, but the Boilers boxed out and competed for rebounds quite well. Erin Lawless led the way with a game-high 8 caroms.
Free Throw Shooting:
The Old Gold and Black connected on 20 of their 26 free throw attempts for 77%. Katie Gearlds and Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton were perfect from the stripe.
The Boiler's new maturity can be best measured by the low number of ill-advised passes attempted. In past games, a large lead was seen as an opportunity to add extra mustard to the hot dog - and a rash of needless behind-the-back and no-look passes to press row were often the result. On Thursday, the team kept things all business and generally took care of the rock. In all the team recorded 15 assists to 14 turnovers.
When in man to man coverage, Katie Gearlds was the Boilermaker primarily charged with guarding Wisconsin's leading scorer Jolene Anderson. Although she's not known as a defender, Katie's height and quickness kept last year's Big 10 Freshman-of-the-Year in check as she was held to 7 points below her average. Overall, Katie played an extremely effective game; shooting within the frame of the offense and setting up teammates when double teamed. One need only glance at her stat. line to understand why she was on the floor for 39 minutes. Katie scored 13 points (5-11, 1-3 3 pt.er, 2-2 FT), 1 rebound, 5 assists, a blocked shot, and 2 steals to 1 turnover.
Erin Lawless held her ground on the low block despite being pushed and pulled nearly every second on the court. She picked up two quick "aggression" fouls in the first half, but otherwise played a very solid game. In all Erin had 11 points (3-6, 5-7 FT), 8 rebounds, an assist, and two turnovers.
Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton has extremely deceptive speed. She moves so smoothly she does not appear to be hurried, but her drop steps and shooting motion are incredibly fast. Lindsay often can get a shot off before her opponent has reacted. Lindsay remains a shot-blocking machine defensively, and her presence on the court made the Badgers think twice about attempting penetration moves. Lindsay finished the night with 10 points (3-6, 4-4 FT), 4 rebounds, an assist, a steal, and 2 blocked shots to 1 turnover.
Sharika Webb had one of her better games. She was a true floor leader, one who appeared to be in control of her team and the game's tempo at all times. She resisted the urge to get too fancy on offense or make big gambles on defense. Most encouraging was the fact that she looked to score and hit her shots. Her desperation, off-balance three point shot when the shot clock had wound down punctured any hope of a Badger comeback. In all, Sharika had a season-high 12 points (4-5, 1-1 3 pt.er, 3-4 FT), 3 rebounds, 5 assists, and 2 steals to 3 turnovers.
One of the main story lines of the season has been the emergence of Aya Traore. In true sport's cliché fashion it can be said that she has "taken her game to the next level," and has developed into a player that other teams must stop if they are to stop the Boilers. Aya is always an offensive threat when she's on the court, and is increasingly confident at attacking the hoop "off the bounce." One gets the impression that opponents aren't used to players of Aya's size moving so quickly, and often defenders freeze (perhaps in an attempt to draw a charge) only to see the senior spin by them on the way to another lay-up. Aya has also developed into a smart defender, and can now be counted on to contribute on both ends of the court. Traore overcame the stomach flu to record a game-high 18 points (7-12, 4-5 FT),5 rebounds, an assist and a steal to 1 turnover.
The long time off between games allowed Jodi Howell's knees to recover from the stress of the pre-conference travel. It was reported that her father helped her with her shooting form over the Christmas break as well. The final results were all good. Jodi immediately asked for the ball when she first entered the game and sank a three pointer. She remained hot throughout the night, and finished as the sixth player on the team in double figures. In all, Jodi recorded 12 points (4-6, 3-4 3 pt.er, 1-2 FT), 2 rebounds, and a turnover.
Natasha Bogdanova was responsible for one of the most impressive plays of the night. Jolene Anderson was attempting to drive to the basket when Natasha stepped into her lane and grabbed the ball right out of Anderson's arms as she was preparing to shoot. Bogs can be counted on to provide a great dose of energy when she's in the game, but still needs to work on maintaining control. She finished with 1 point (0-1, 1-2 FT), 2 rebounds, and an assist to 3 turnovers.
It is apparent that other teams are scouting Cherelle George, as the Badgers went into "press break passing mode" when she was on the court. No doubt Cherelle will go through another adaptation stage as she adjusts to the increased intensity of Big 10 play, and she did not look as comfortable on the court as she had in previous outings. George ended the night with an assist and a turnover.
Like Cherelle, Danielle Campbell will need to adjust to the physical style of conference games. She struggled a bit against Wisconsin's post players. Once she adjusts, however, she can be counted on to be a major contributor. Danielle did not score during her 10 minutes on the court (0-1), but did pull down 2 rebounds and record a steal to 1 turnover.
Kiki Freeman and Carol Duncan (sporting an enormous thumb bandage) played for a minute each but did not otherwise dent the box score. Mioton, Helgeson, and Mays did not play.
One of the Christmas presents head coach Kristy Curry gave her team was some fresh offensive plays. The Boilers ran some new sets, and the one in which Sharika Webb cut to the low block was particularly successful. Curry was extremely upset in the second half, stomping and screaming at her befuddled charges over several minutes. It was not clear to the fans what provoked her ire, but everyone could hear her displeasure. By the end of the game, however, all was forgiven.
There was a huge discrepancy in the number of fouls whistled on the teams. Purdue was whistled for a mere 7 infractions during the entire game, and did not pick up a foul in the second half until over 15 minutes had elapsed. From this admittedly biased view it did not look like the officials were extremely one-sided. Rather, it appeared to be the natural result of what happens when one team plays passively and settles for outside jump shots. No doubt a Badger fan would see this a bit differently.
It must be noted that Rowdy has yet to make an appearance at a women's basketball game. Perhaps he's torn, deemed too big for an indoor venue, or is holding out for a larger contract. Also missing was the banner advertising the first and second round NCAA tournament games. Full marks must go to the band - out in force despite the vacation. Some of the members looked fairly long in the tooth, so no doubt some alumni were replacing vacationing students. The announced crowd of 7582 was loud and boisterous. As is usually the case, the majority stayed till the final buzzer despite the fact that the outcome was known well before hand.
The Boilers don't have time to enjoy their 1-0 Big 10 start as they next host Ohio State. The Buckeyes are on everyone's list to win the Big 10, and, on paper, they are easily the league's most talented team. The Boilers aren't too shabby themselves, however, and are improving every time out. Don't be too surprised if the Old Gold and Black use the home court advantage to pull an upset.
Game Ball: Aya Traore