The Purdue women's basketball team must be the Dr. David Banner of the Big 10. They are just plain nice people, unwilling to hurt a weaker team's feelings by playing too tough or running up a big score. They give the appearance of a group of young women who spend most of their free time rescuing kittens from trees and helping little old ladies across Northwestern Ave. Like David Banner, however, the team has a darker side. One that only emerges when provoked.
The contest Sunday afternoon between the Purdue Boilermakers and the Minnesota Golden Gophers started normally enough. The game was do-or-die for the Gophers- with 2 conference losses on the books they needed a victory in Mackey to retain any hope of winning the Big 10. The Boilers were in "good team" mode, playing well with great energy. The match had the defensive intensity of a play-off game, no doubt due to the high stakes involved.
Gopher forward Jamie Broback took advantage of a nice inside pass to put the visitors on the board first, and the Maroon and Gold jumped out to a 4-0 lead early. Purdue, meanwhile, immediately began to exploit the mismatch created when the Gophers put 5'9" April Calhoun on Aya Traore. Aya posted up her shorter defenders throughout the afternoon. After a Traore lay-up and a Wisdom-Hylton "J" the score was locked up at 4 all. Things remained close for the first part of the game, and with 10 minutes elapsed the score was 12-8 in the Old Gold and Black's favor.
Then Cherelle George was leveled by a pick which, although legal, was pretty darn mean. As Cherelle was assisted off the court, you could almost hear the rest of the Boilers growl, "Don't make me angry. You won't like me when I get angry." They then morphed into Incredible Hulks, and ratcheted their game up to another level. Head Coach Kristy Curry later said that at that moment she could see the resolve and anger in every player's eyes, and she was confident that her team would emerge victorious.
Most of the offensive damage was done by Traore and Gearlds. Although Purdue is not generally a team that employs many screens, Katie repeatedly used them to brush off Shannon Bolden, the Gopher's super defender and designated Katie stopper. It was a complete team effort defensively, and over the first 20 minutes the Boilers forced the Gophers into 8 turnovers. The Boilers held onto their lead, and entered the locker room ahead by 4, 25-21.
Aya went right back to the well at the start of the second half, posting up for 2 quick buckets. Gopher coach Pam Borton called a time out before a minute had elapsed with the score at 29-21. Her primary move was to switch Bolden onto Traore. This meant that Gearlds was now the 6'1" guard/forward being defended by shorter and slower players. The Boilers immediately took advantage, and Katie hit 2 of the next 3 Purdue buckets. With 4 minutes elapsed in the second, the lead had mushroomed to 36-21. You might notice that 21 points was Minnesota's half time score. The Gophers noticed, too. They responded by trying to make up the deficit in one trip, the end result being either an unforced turnover or a rushed shot. Borton called an additional time out and played mix and match with all her players trying to find some combination that could break the spell. Nothing worked for the Gophers, however. Meanwhile, everything was going the Boiler's way as Aya and Katie seemingly took turns scoring at will. With 12 minutes left on the clock the Boiler's margin had grown to 24 points, 45-21.
At the 11:50 mark Jamie Broback and Natasha Bogdanova became entangled as they both went up for a rebound. The players lost their balance and crashed to the floor together. Jamie stayed down, and left the game with an injured elbow. The Gophers' response to the loss of their star player was to quit. Although the team managed to score 10 points on three made field goals before the final buzzer, their heart was obviously not in it. Purdue, on the other hand, kept punching till the final seconds. Two field goals by Stephanie Helgeson and Bogdanova in the final minute were the best indication that the Boilers weren't going to let up until the clock had hit all zeros. When it did the Boilers had won by a final score of 63-31.
Comments on specific aspects of the game:
Purdue's offensive game plan on Sunday was an exercise in taking what the other team is giving you. Minnesota's defense hinges on Shannon Bolden's ability to shut down a team's leading scorer. Purdue presented Minnesota with 2 scorers in Katie Gearlds and Aya Traore. Both are over 6 feet tall, and one or the other had to be defended by a smaller and/or slower player while Bolden was concentrating on the other. The results were predictable. Most encouraging was the fact that 10 of the 12 Boilers who saw action scored at least one point.
The Boilers came out with their "big game" urgency and played excellent defense from the opening tip. The Old Gold and Black were credited with 10 steals, and their relentless ball pressure goes a long way towards explaining the Gopher's 24% shooting percentage for the game. It's difficult to determine how effective Purdue's defensive efforts were in the second half. While it would be nice to take credit for holding a team to 10 points on 13% shooting, the Gophers flat out quit.
After a pair of so- so efforts in the boxing out department, Purdue ramped up the intensity and every post player did an excellent job of "getting a body" on their Gopher counterpart. In several instances the posts kept Minnesota at bay so that a Purdue guard could swoop in to grab the ball. Sharika Webb took advantage more than anyone and led the game with 8 boards. Overall Purdue pulled down 40 caroms to 31 for the opposing team.
Purdue achieved one of their constant goals as they made more free throws (11) than the other team attempted (6). The Boilers took 14 attempts to score those 11 points for a 78% average. Aya Traore, Erin Lawless, Sharika Webb, and Cherelle George were perfect from the stripe.
Purdue just didn't make mistakes on Sunday. This had to be some of the best basketball a Purdue team has played since Curry's arrival in West Lafayette. The statistics support this impression as the team have a 16/10 assist to turnover ratio as well as recording those 16 assists on 25 made baskets. Both are excellent marks.
To say that Aya Traore presents a match-up problem for other teams is like saying that Donald Trump has a bit of an ego. The Gophers had no single player who could stop her. She's too fast for most post players, and too tall for most guards. To top it off, the method Minnesota chose to attempt to stop her, i.e. holding and "getting physical" merely angered the 5th-year-senior and made her all the more determined to make them pay. Mike Carmen of the Journal and Courier is touting Aya as B10 player-of-the-year, and one hopes others outside Lafayette are taking note. In a superb outing Aya recorded a game-high 22 points (10-15, 0-1 3 pt.er, 2-2 FT), 6 rebounds, 1 assist, and 1 blocked shot to 4 turnovers.
While Aya was making her case Big 10 POY, Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton was doing the same for defensive player of the year. It began when Lindsay picked guard April Calhoun in the open court and took the ball in for a break away lay-up. Centers just don't do that sort of thing. For Lindsay, it was the first of a game-high 5 steals, as she time and again prevented Minnesota from delivering entry passes by either stepping into the passing lane or tipping the ball away from the Gopher posts. Having a defender of Lindsay's abilities in the post takes an enormous amount of pressure off the Purdue guards, and allows every other Boiler to be more aggressive on the defensive end. Lindsay finished the afternoon with 3 points (1-4, 1-2 FT), 5 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 blocks, 5 steals, and 0 turnovers.
Erin Lawless' stat line on Sunday was not as gaudy as some in the past, but she played very well. It should come as no surprise that she only scored 6 points as the focus of Purdue's offensive efforts was in exploiting the mismatch that Katie and Aya presented. What she did was hit enough shots to keep the defenders honest while holding her ground against Minnesota's extremely physical front line. The best part of Erin's game Sunday was the fact that she didn't force anything. Rather, she played within herself and let the game come to her. In all, Erin recorded 6 points (2-5, 2-2 FT), 5 rebounds, 3 assists, and a steal to 2 turnovers.
To date, Katie Gearlds has recorded a season total of 79 assists to 30 turnovers for a 2.6:1 ratio. This excellent number speaks to her high basketball I.Q. and improved ball handling ability. The Boilers ran Katie off a number of curls and screens in order to help her get her points. These efforts were fairly successful when Bolden was hounding her. When Bolden was switched onto Aya, Katie immediately took advantage and went off for a flurry of points to fuel Purdue's monster second half. Katie looked every bit an All-American as she totaled 14 points (6-16, 1-5 3pt.er, 1-2 FT), 5 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 blocks, and 0 turnovers.
Sharika Webb's most notable box score contribution was her 8 rebounds. Her so-so line (2 points [0-2, 2-2 FT], 8 rebounds, 1 assist, 2 steals to 1 turnover) does not reflect her efforts and impact on the game. Sharika was a floor general Sunday, dictating tempo and running the Boilermaker machine. A very nice job for the senior.
Natasha Bogdanova showed that her IPFW output wasn't a fluke as she nailed a long jump shot shortly after entering the game. Bogs mainly impacted play as a high-energy defender, and looks to be the player most likely to step into Carol Duncan's shoes as a rebounding/defensive specialist. Natasha finished the night with 4 points (2-5), 2 rebounds, an assist, and a turnover.
Danielle Campbell has been under the radar for a while, but she's turned into a very reliable bench player who can come in and give the team double digit minutes without any drop in the level of play. Danielle enjoyed a very good outing, hitting both her shot attempts for 4 points, pulling down 2 boards, and recording one assist, steal, block, and turnover apiece.
Curry needed Carol Duncan's muscle, and the senior played for 13 minutes on the afternoon. She swooped into a bunch of Minnesota players to tie up the ball, and generally played her trademark physical defense. Carol finished with 1 point (0-0, 1-2 FT), 4 rebounds, and 2 assists to 1 turnover.
Lauren Mioton, Kiki Freeman, and Stephanie Helgeson played for the final 3 minutes. Unlike similar circumstances against Notre Dame and Michigan State, the three reserves did not allow the Gophers to make up ground in garbage time. Kiki and Stephanie both delivered assists. When Stephanie hit a basket in the final minute the crowd cheered loudly in appreciation.
Winning basketball is all about finding mis-matches on the court and exploiting them. Curry did a good job to recognize that Aya was her wild card, but any coach could look at the relative heights of the two teams and figured out that much. Where Curry earned her pay was in the in-game adjustments that allowed the Boilers to keep Minnesota on its heels all game. Traore began the game posting up her shorter guard defenders on the low block. When Minnesota made the switch to a taller defender, Aya began slashing to the hoop and taking jumpers. Finally, when Bolden was switched onto Aya, Katie's number was called and she was able to penetrate and hit close-up jumpers.
It was a big recruiting day as multiple signed, committed, and other prospects were in the house. All three assistants were out "working the room" before tip off. No doubt everyone in the Boilermaker family was happy that the recruits witnessed such a dominating performance.
It's no secret that when Purdue and Minnesota take the court a physical game will result. The officials appeared to be prepared for this eventuality, as they were extremely quick to blow their whistles. Three infractions were called before 3 minutes had elapsed from the game clock. As one might predict, the fans were incensed at the stoppages of play when a player in white was the culprit, then boo'ed all the louder when a player in maroon made contact without getting called for an infraction. The officials did a decent job in a very difficult atmosphere.
Purdue enjoyed its largest crowd of the season, as 11233 made their way to Mackey for the event. The crowd was extremely animated in the first half, and very much into a close game. As the second half wore on and on without a Minnesota point, the cheering turned into more of a conversational buzz. No doubt most of the folks in the stands were remarking on how extraordinarily the game was playing out.
Purdue will now become the Gophers' biggest fan as they hope the team recovers their edge quickly enough to knock off Ohio State in Williams Arena. If Ohio State pulls out a victory in Minneapolis, the Boilers will probably need to win in Columbus in order to share the Big 10 crown. The Old Gold and Black is playing extremely well right now, but beating a top 10 team on their home court is always a very tall order.
The Boilers will next face a supreme challenge when they take on a miserable Michigan team next Thursday. Sure, we know they can win the big ones against ranked opponents, but will they finally be able to put away a bad team early and convincingly? We'll find out Thursday.
Game Ball: Aya Traore