Women’s basketball play-by-play and color analysts are not exactly known for their blunt, hard-hitting commentary. The discretion with which they have discussed the situation at Penn State stretches even their limits for euphemism, however. The most a fan can expect to hear on the radio or television is a statement that it’s been a tough year for the Lady Lions, and that they are experiencing trouble “on and off the court.”
As being blunt has never been an issue in this column, I’ll come right out and summarize the situation. Penn State coach Rene Portland has had in the past (and apparently has now) an ideal in her mind of how a Lady Lion women’s basketball player should look and act. That ideal runs along the lines of good student and citizen, a church goer who dresses demurely and does not call undo attention to herself. Part and parcel of this image is a sexuality and lifestyle that is decidedly non-alternative. Portland’s team rules boil down to three things, “No drugs, no alcohol, no lesbians.” Portland’s standards trump all, and any individual player who doesn’t look the part is harassed into either straightening up (pun intended) or shown the door.
Portland also apparently expects her players to take whatever she feels like dishing out without complaint. So when she felt like booting three players off the team immediately after Penn State’s first round loss in last year’s NCAA tournament – she up and did it. Rene Portland, I’d like to introduce you to 2005. 2005, meet Coach Portland. Two players followed the age old script and have disappeared from the public eye. Jennifer Harris, the team’s third leading scorer, took a stand. It started with her mother going straight to the press and going on record that Jennifer was “fired.” It then came out that the only reason why Harris was told she was no longer welcome at Penn State was Portland’s perception that she looked “too black” and that she was a lesbian (Harris says that she is not a lesbian. She does admit to being black). Jennifer’s case has been seized by the National Center for Lesbian Rights, a group that no doubt has been waiting for just such a situation to unfold. A discrimination lawsuit against Portland and Penn State has been filed. The case is currently winding its way through the court system, providing a constant drumbeat of negative publicity along the way.
There are many who feel that the off-court drama swirling around the Penn State Women’s basketball program has little to do with the game of basketball. They believe that Penn State should be left to deal with its dirty laundry in its own way, and that all our attention should be focused on what happens between the opening tip and the final buzzer. It says here that those people are mistaken – the off court situation has everything to do with what is going on with this year’s Lady Lions. After all, the reason only 3 of Penn State’s 10 players have had any college basketball experience prior to this season is not because they’ve had an unfortunate string of injuries. Ten players have left the program before their eligibility has expired in the past four seasons alone, and it’s not because they couldn’t hack PSU’s academic demands. The on-the-court fact is that is year’s edition of the White and Blue is a very bad team. What is more, the reason it is bad is not because of injury, academic suspensions, unbalanced recruiting classes, or any of the other myriad reasons why strong programs sometimes sustain down years. Plain and simple, the only reason that the Lady Lions are 7-10, including 1-5 in the Big 10, is because of the actions of their head coach.
For the first time in years, the Purdue Boilermakers entered the game Thursday against the Penn State Lady Lions as prohibitive favorites. From the opening tip it was clear that the Boilers were a far superior squad and the final outcome was never in doubt. The Boilers cracked the scoring column at the 19:40 mark when Katie Gearlds curled into the lane and hit a short jumper. Gearlds was in the mother of all zones Thursday, and sustained a high level of play throughout the contest. When Penn State called a time out at the 15:16 mark the Boilers had gone 5-5 from the field (including 3 makes by Katie) and the Old Gold and Black led 11-7. Unlike last year, Purdue was now the team that could throw presses and traps when the inexperienced Lady Lions least expected it. The visitors were never able to handle the Boiler’s defensive intensity, while offensively Purdue was shooting lights out. The lead grew steadily over the course of the half, aided by PSU’s 1-5 performance from the free throw line. The final play of the half deserves special mention. Katie Gearlds was able to penetrate deep into the lane, and connected on an acrobatic shot with 0.1 seconds remaining. The half time score was 38-21 in Purdue’s favor.
In the first minutes of the second half Purdue reverted to their early-season tendency to lose focus once the game was out of reach. Purdue’s defensive intensity went south while sloppy sets and poor shot selection allowed Penn State to score 6 quick points. With 17:23 remaining and the score 40-27 Curry had seen enough. She called a time out and was able to get her players back on track. When play resumed the team picked up were they had left off in the first stanza and quickly built a large lead. Katie Gearlds was again key as she hit 5 baskets in a row for the Boilers. With a bit over six minutes remaining the home team enjoyed its largest lead of the night, 63-40. Over the next three minutes the starters were all subbed out, and by the final media time out it was the Boiler’s little used reserves that were on the court. It was at this point that it became evident that Portland must have left her copy of "How to Win Friends and Influence People" in State College. With three minutes left to go the Boilers were up 68-47 and the dogs had officially been called off. Rene chose this time to put her starters back in and go to a full court press. This caught Purdue off guard and enabled the Lions to get a few quick steals that were converted into easy points. For that reason, the 14 point final differential makes the game appear much closer than it actually was. The final score was 70-56.
Comments on Specific Aspects of the Game:
It was the Katie Gearlds show on Thursday. She exhibited the effortless rhythm and dead-eye aim that was last seen during her freshman year. Kate was not the only Boiler having a good night, as 4 other Boilers shot for over 50% from the field. Overall the team hit exactly 50% of its shot attempts, including a 36% effort from behind the arc.
One of the most exciting aspects of this year’s edition of the Boilermakers is their defensive excellence. No Big 10 team has scored more than 60 points against them this year, a stat which is all the more amazing when one considers that 2 games went into overtime before they were decided. The Old Gold and Black spent the majority of the night in a zone, but they did most of their work before the half court. They relentlessly hounded the PSU ball handlers and would trap and press frequently. This resulted in an astounding 28 Lady Lion turnovers, of which 17 were credited as Purdue steals.
The one place Penn State was able to gain an upper hand was in the rebounding department. The visitors pulled down 39 boards to 22 for the home team. One reason for the low numbers may be because 3 players would invariably run back to prevent transition buckets as soon as a shot went up, leaving only 2 Purdue players to compete for rebounds. Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton led the way with a game-high 7 caroms.
Free Throw Shooting
After going 5-6 from the stripe in the first half the Boilers faltered a bit in the second by hitting only 5-10 of their free throws. This resulted in an overall total of 62%. For the first time in many games, no player was perfect from the stripe.
Twenty two of Purdue’s 28 made baskets were assisted – a ridiculously high number. This stat reflects the Boiler’s team effort and their ability to find the open player. The fact that everything chucked at the basket went in didn’t hurt either. Except for the final 2 minutes the team made very few errors and played an excellent game.
It’s Katie Gearlds’ world, we just live in it. Katie had an amazing game, certainly one of her strongest in a Purdue uniform. When it was over she found herself 2 points shy of being the 21st Purdue player to score 1,000 points in her career. No doubt she will reach that milestone on Sunday. In addition to nailing everything she threw up, Katie also played strong defense, maintained a good offensive flow, and kept her team mates involved. Her line is eye-popping – 28 points (12-15, 2-5 3 pt.er, 2-3 FT), 2 rebounds, 3 assists, and a blocked shot. Perhaps the most notable number, however, is the 0 recorded under turnovers. The infinite 3:0 assist to turnover ratio is all the more remarkable when one considers that the ball is in her hands a great deal of the time. Here’s hoping the strength of Thursday’s outing becomes the rule for Katie rather than the exception.
Aya Traore appeared to have a quiet game, but this was an illusion caused by Gearlds' overwhelming performance. Aya hit double figures herself on the strength of shooting 50% from the field (11 points on 5-10 including 1-2 from the 3 point line). Aya was most impressive on the defensive end of the floor. She is getting better and better at stepping into passing lanes for easy steals, and she was quick enough to shut down Penn State’s speedy guards thus preventing their dribble penetration. In addition to the points, Aya had 1 rebound, 2 assists, and 3 steals to 2 turnovers.
Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton played very well in the first half. In the second she appeared to be favoring an arm, and played fewer minutes that was typical. One hopes there is nothing wrong with the agile sophomore. In all, Lindsay recorded 4 points (2-4), 7 rebounds, an assist, and a blocked shot to 2 turnovers.
Erin Lawless walked on and off the court with a slight limp, and she shot the ball like a person who was injured – at times she’d underestimate her range and leave her shots short, then overcompensate and send the ball flying over the rim. One area that her recent ankle sprain has not affected has been her timing and side to side mobility, as she was able to jump in front of entry passes for steals on several occasions. Although she is giving her all, Erin has not been as effective post-injury as she was earlier in the season. No doubt she’ll regain her form as her comfort increases. At the end of the day Erin was the third Boiler in double figures with 11 points (3-11, 0-1 3 pt.er, 5-6 FT), 1 rebound, 3 assists, 1 block, and 4 steals. Like Katie, Erin did not commit a turnover in her 28 minutes on the court.
Sharika Webb appeared to enjoy having the shoe on the other foot – being the person causing turnovers and harassing an inexperienced point guard rather than being the harassee. Although she got a little out of control on some of her passes, overall Webby played a solid game. She totaled 2 points (1-4, 0-2 3pt.er), 1 rebound, 4 assists, and 2 steals, to 1 turnover.
Curry took advantage of the large point differential to give minutes to her bench players. Every Boiler save Ashley Mays and Jodi Howell saw the floor. Jodi has been diagnosed with a stress fracture, and is out for an indefinite period of time.
Cherelle George played with her trademark intensity. Her mere presence on the court changes the way her opponents move the ball, resulting in 10-15 seconds off the shot clock before the other team begins to look for a score. The Lady Lions played off of George when Purdue was in the half court, and she nailed a wide-open three pointer when it became apparent that no PSU was going to come out and guard her. In all Cherelle had 5 points (2-3, 1-1 3 pt.er), 2 rebounds, 4 assists, and 3 steals to 4 turnovers.
Perhaps, like Aya Traore, Natasha Bogdanova needs to come down with the stomach flu in order to improve on the court. She does everything well, but has a bit too much energy to finish her shots. Time and again she’ll use her superior foot work to get right to the basket. At the last second, however, it appears as if the excitement gets to be too much for her and she’ll throw the ball up at 100 miles per hour. A little softening of her shooting touch would make all the difference. Scoring or not, there’s no disputing the fact she’s a very active defender and gives everything she’s got when she’s in the game. Natasha finished with 1 point (0-3, 1-2 FT),2 rebounds, an assist and a turnover.
Kiki Freeman saw extended minutes (no doubt due to Jodi’s absence) and redeemed herself extremely well. She’s extremely athletic under the hoop, and would mix it up going for rebounds. The redshirt freshman uses her athleticism and long frame to her advantage and is a good defender. Kiki also evidenced a whole new level of ball handling and ability to pass and find her open teammates. Overall, this was Kiki’s best game by a large margin. Freeman finished the night with 2 points (1-2), 3 rebounds, 2 assists, and a steal to 2 turnovers.
Danielle Campbell held her own during her 13 minutes on the court. Unfortunately, her teammates couldn’t find her despite her low block post-up moves. Danielle knows what to do with the ball when she gets it, however, and defends very well for a freshman post player. In all, Danielle had 4 points (1-3, 2-3 FT), 1 rebound, and a blocked shot.
Carol Duncan, Lauren Mioton, and Stephanie Helgeson played for 4, 4, and 3 minutes respectively. The Boilers needed speed rather than muscle, something that explains Carol’s short stint on the floor. She did dish out an assist and block a shot. Stephanie appeared quite tentative, but did manage a block and an assist as well. Lauren took care of the ball and was able to maintain offensive flow during her short time on the court. She also hit her only shot attempt for 2 points.
It was quite clear in the post-game comments that Penn State’s last minute full court press did not amuse Curry. Like all the other Big 10 coaches, she has only commented on Portland’s problems when questioned directly. Even then, her responses have been vague and non-inflammatory. Like Portland and every other head coach, Curry’s off court actions are reflected in the quality of the on-court product. Purdue fans are lucky that her actions are positive and program-building rather than the opposite.
It is hard to quibble with the fouls that were whistled during the game. Traveling and double dribble violations went by without stoppage of play on many occasions, however. Not a very strong job by the “zebras.”
There were many that were curious to see what would happen when Portland was introduced. Anything was possible (Well, almost anything. There was no chance that she’d be loudly cheered) – from the typical “golf clap” most opposing coaches receive to rainbow banners, signs, and loud jeers. A smattering of boos were heard, and then, like the team, the crowd got down to the business at hand.
Nothing makes a Mackey crowd happier than to see the Boilers lay a good old fashioned smack down on a hated rival. The 7066 in attendance enjoyed the evening immensely. When Katie Gearlds left the game for the final time, the crowd honored her with a standing O – the first of the season for any player.
With the win the Boilers remain undefeated and in sole possession of first place in the Big 10. With the upsets of several teams higher in the national rankings, it is very probable that they’ll crack the Top 10 for the first time in more than a season. Most heartening is that their 14-2 overall record is not a fluke; the squad is playing the tough minded, defense oriented, team game that those in West Lafayette have grown to know as “Boiler basketball.” The team next takes its undefeated record on the road as it tackles a surprising Illinois squad. The Illini are a dangerous group, but even in Champaign the Old Gold and Black should prevail if they play close to their potential.
Game Ball: Katie Gearlds