© Old Gold Free Press Columnists
During the Big Ten Network’s broadcast of the Purdue-Penn State game on Thursday, newly minted color commentator Teresa Grentz related a conversation she had had earlier in the day with first year PSU coach Coquese Washington. Washington had told the ex-Illinois head coach that her team was young and that she still didn’t know who was going to show up. “It’s not because they’re young. It’s always like that,” Grentz replied, “in all my years of coaching there’s only been one or two years when I knew what I was getting on any given night.” Nothing could be a better illustration of Grentz’s point than the than the Purdue Boilermakers fortunes this season. Within a span of 72 hours they had both their worst loss and best win of the season.
Purdue had won in Bloomington, so the entire Boiler nation anticipated an easy win when the Hoosiers came to call Monday. The Old Gold and Black jumped out to a 7 -0 lead. Despite this early lead, the home team’s shots weren’t falling and every offensive possession was painful to behold. When IU started making their shots they quickly reeled in the home team. Many times the Hoosiers found an open three point shooter in transition or on ball reversal. In contrast to IU’s effortless scoring, the Boilers looked to be playing uphill – in molasses, with weights on their ankles. The team would scratch out a small lead only to see the visitors reel them back in. IU went up by one with 47 seconds left in the half when Jamie Braun sunk two free throws.
Purdue never regained the lead. At the beginning of the second half the Old Gold and Black played with some energy, but their poor shooting, both from the field and free throw line, did them in. As the game wore on, the Boilers began to wear out. They stopped going for lose balls and contesting for rebounds. Despite this, they stayed within striking distance for most of the half. Towards the final minutes they began fouling to stop the clock. Thus the 12 point differential at the end of the game gives a false impression that the contest was a blow out. The final score was 66-54. The loss knocked the Boilers down to third place in the Big 10, and moved them 2 games away from the .500 mark.
One of the very few bright lights was the play of FahKara Malone. She broke out of her shooting slump in a big way, and was under control for most of the night. Also deserving special mention was the job done by the officials. This was not an easy game to manage; it was quite physical, with offsetting technical fouls at one point. Despite this, the officials did an excellent job.
After the game head Coach Sharon Versyp was uncharacteristically blunt. She publicly called out her players and promised a shake up. By all reports, the practices on Tuesday and Wednesday were brutal, with any error or loss of focus resulting in a “Mackey” for the offending player. At one point one 3 players remained on the court while the remainder of the team was running up and down the stairs. The shoot around Thursday morning in State College was focused and intense. Despite that, nobody held out much hope for a win at PSU. The Lions were undefeated at home this season, and they are always very tough in the Bryce Jordan Center.
Versyp kept true to her word. When the game started, Lauren Mioton and Samatha Woods were on the court, replacing Kiki Freeman and Natasha Bogdanova. Perhaps it was the new blood, but from the opening tip it was evident that the Boilers were a different team. They were sharp, focused, and played with a great deal of energy. The Nittany Lions have a talented team led by arguably the Big 10’s best backcourt in Brianne O’Rourke and Kamela Gissendanner. The Lion’s bread and butter is scoring in transition, and this was the focus of the Boiler’s defensive efforts. They consistently beat the Blue and White down the court, forcing the home team to run their offensive sets out of the half court. In the half court, Purdue took advantage of their length to jam things up in the paint. As a result, it was Penn State’s turn to get frustrated. After playing evenly for most of the first half, the Boilers went on an extended run to push the advantage up to 14 points, 35-21. Just as quickly the momentum turned and Penn State went on a run of their own. With 18 seconds remaining in the half the Nittany Lions had cut the lead to 5 points. What is more, the all too familiar fear and hesitation began rearing its ugly head as the Boilers began to play with much less focus than they had earlier. That is then FahKara Malone hit the shot of the night. With 4 seconds remaining in the half she nailed a cold blooded step back three pointer to push the lead back up to 8.
Kiki and Natasha returned to the starting line up to begin the second half. The message had been sent, both players had excellent games. The Boilers picked right up where they left off in the first and ran the lead up to 14 points. Despite the large lead, the game remained interesting to the Boiler fans. No lead has been secure this season, and until the final two minutes the suspense as to whether the Boilers could maintain the lead kept things interesting. On Thursday they were able to maintain their focus and level of play for the entire 40 minutes. The shots and free throws kept falling, the defense held up, and the team maintained its composure. After what was easily their best performance of the year, the Boilers emerged victorious, 79-70.
There are times when a really bad loss changes a team’s entire season. It provides the players with the rock bottom they need to hit before coming back up. One can only hope that the defeat on Monday provides just this impetus for the Boilers. If they play with the effort, focus, and intensity exhibited Thursday for the remainder of the season, the Old Gold and Black might just salvage this season after all.
Game Ball: FahKara Malone