The comedian, Gallagher, once waxed luminous in a humorous vein about the nonsensical whims and vagrancies of the English language. "Where but in the United States," he pondered, "would you park in a driveway and drive on a parkway?"
Perhaps the same could be said for all those who vote in sports polls as well. Consider how often two teams, matched closely in rankings, end up after a close game, moving even further apart. Why this behavior persists, I will probably never understand. But then, maybe it was those same pollsters who coined the terms for where we park and drive...
After the Purdue/Vanderbilt game, natural logic would seem to dictate that if Purdue is truly the #6 team in the country, then Vanderbilt certainly, IMHO, solidified its ranking at #8. In the end analysis, these were two very well matched teams that did nothing in this game to repudiate that fact. But the game was so much more than that...
As a kid growing up, I remember the anticipation of listening to the heavyweight fights between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. Here were two consummate fighters with differing styles yet so closely matched. Back and forth these giants of boxing would go, round after round, with neither gaining much of an advantage despite the immense punishment they doled out to one another.
And so it was in this thriller of a basketball game in strangely quiet and sparsely populated Wells Fargo Arena on the campus of ASU in Tempe, Arizona (and for non-locals, it's tem-pee' NOT tem'-pee!!!). Both teams resembled two top prize fighters with neither team blinking in the intense stare of the other. In fact, to begin with, not one player shook hands at the center jump circle. It was that competitive. Just business, one and all.
From the opening tip to Vandy, Purdue came out in a stifling man defense including a token man press with Valek harassing McElhiney every step of the way. Yet McElhiney was unfazed by it all and handled it with ease. Vandy came out in a high/low post offense with a back door 3-pt shooter on the weak side baseline to take advantage of the double teams on Chantelle Anderson. But there was no need for the perimeter option as McElhiney patiently reversed the ball time and again until she or another player on the wing could dump it down low to Anderson. Of course, once Chantelle got the ball in the low block, she was unstoppable as Mary Jo - clearly instructed by the coaches - merely held her arms straight up with no attempt to block or otherwise disrupt the shot.
Yet what was really going on defensively was BEFORE the low post feeds. Mary Jo, then Carol Duncan, then Emily Heikes all took turns in muscling the slender, athletic Anderson forcing her to literally fight her way into position. Of course, this took its toll in several early fouls against our low post players and a couple for reach-ins against our perimeter players as they collapsed on Ms. Anderson. But more important was the physical toll it was invariably taking on Vandy's All-American.
On the other end, Vandy set up in what appeared to be a matchup zone defense. Purdue went to a high wheel attack with Mary Jo in the high post and Shereka running the baseline. Lindsey Hicks found early scores on some nice back door lane cuts from the weak side wing with feeds from Beth Jones in the corner. In fact, it was odd but whenever Erika set up the offense, the initial pass seemed to just about always go down into the corner with the consequent flash from the weak side lane cut. The early success of this ploy was no doubt the result of fine scouting done by Kelly Curry.
Yet Melanie Balcomb did not get the Vandy job by resting on her laurels.
By the middle of the first half, she switched over to a trapping zone which started out as a 1-2-2 at the point and turned into a 1-3-1 trap when the ball went to the wing. Time and again, Vandy's defense forced Valek, Jones, Webb, Taylor and Hicks well out beyond the arc and disrupted the passing lanes. Which is where Vandy forced the Boilers into several turnovers.
However, to both teams' credit, there were very few unforced turnovers as both teams took VERY good care of the ball and worked their offenses until the assist was there. In fact, both teams finished with almost identical team A/TO ratios. Both teams had 18 turns to go with 21 assists for Vandy and 20 for Purdue.
Indeed, the flow of the game was much like a boxing match as Purdue boxed and jabbed their way to several 7-8 point leads only to have Vanderbilt land some thunderous blows and uppercuts to come back. And while Vandy shot very well in the face of a tough man defense, the Boilers though cooler, hammered the boards relentlessly on their way to a +9 rebounding advantage (36-27) for the game despite Anderson/Benningfield's advantage of 14 boards to Noon/Duncan/Heikes total of 6. In fact, the biggest surprise all afternoon to me was the aggressive and heady play of Missy Taylor who finished with 6 boards as she fearlessly wedged her frail body into the scrum of flesh that accumulated under the boards on every shot.
As the smoke cleared at the end of the first half, the Boilers held a tenuous 1 point lead earned moments before the half came to an end. Both teams gave the other their best shots both offensively and defensively and the game was even-Steven. Purdue had jumped to the early lead, Vandy came back to take and hold a slim lead until just before the buzzer.
At half, the Boilers had to recover from 2 quick fouls whistled on both Mary Jo and, strangely, Shereka Wright on offensive drives. Evidently, the refs were not buying into Shereka's quickness as she plowed into defenders twice causing bodies to fly. Yet on closer inspection, the scoreboard replay showed Shereka was SO quick that the defender could not even lift her foot to step to the side to cut off Shereka's drive before she was into the defender. Of course, the refs did not notice the defensive player LEANING well over into Ms. Wright as contact was made but I guess that is just life. When you are that quick, the refs only see a blur with the defenders' feet still firmly planted on the floor. So it must be a charge, right?
However, to be fair, despite the early ticky-tacks against the Boilers, the refs made up for it in the second half with calls going the opposite way such as when they saw an apparent foul when Shereka was cleanly stripped of the ball as she went up for a shot attempt. Fortunately, the curious refereeing generally balanced out towards each team in the end with no real advantage either way. Yet it was the Boiler's ability to drive and draw contact in the second stanza that was the ultimate difference in the game.
Early in the second half, Kristy had her charges roll out a very effective 1-3-1 zone trap press falling back into an initial 2-3 zone until the players matched up into their usual man defense. Intensity turned up causing several Vandy turnovers. However, to both teams' credit, the defenses were quick to recover preventing very few fast breaks. In fact, I remember seeing only one for the Boilers late in the second half. And while Vandy never really got their break going, they did break the press one time so effectively that they spread the half court and passed the ball around so well, it made the Boilers look lost in a vain game of keep away with the Commodores eventually draining a 3 to put an end to it.
Again, the second half resembled the fight analogy of the first half as the Boilers would build a 7-8 point lead only to have Vandy shooters find the weak side baseline perimeter shot wide open with several consequent 3's to slug their way back into it. And while the clock continued to wind down, neither team looked tentative nor rattled by all the punch-counterpunching that marked the entire game. In fact, for as close as this game was, I have never seen two teams more composed and focused on matters at hand. If these are not two Final Four-capable teams, I do not know what are.
The turning point of the game came as Vandy really turned up the pressure on the half court trap as well as going to a full-court press. (One interesting note: while Valek spent all of the first half pressing McElhiney, Vandy used Tia Battle to press and hound Valek throughout the 2nd half. Both point guards were clearly getting tired but with absolutely no loss of fight in either throughout the entire game. It is truly as they say, "It ain't the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog!") Anyway, as the Vandy defenders continued to play IYF defense, both Valek and Wright began to drive to the hoop and draw fouls from tired, reaching Vandy defenders. As mentioned before, some of the fouls were suspect but not enough to sway the outcome of the game.
And though Wright disappeared into oblivion much of the first half and part of the second as a result of the early fouls, when the game was on the line, the girl just knows how to find her spots. In fact, the play of the game was in an unintended matchup of the All-Americans as Shereka got the ball in the corner having lost her defender in traffic. Chantelle Anderson, sensing Wright setting up for the 3, stepped out to go for the block. A pump fake by Shereka sent Chantelle into the rafters as Shereka literally blew by her. Of course, Chantelle is no slouch and recovered quickly to trail Shereka to the hole looking for the block from behind. Then, with Anderson evidently thinking Wright had no idea she was behind her, Wright made another pump fake with no one in front of her sending Anderson into the air. And as gravity had its inevitable effect, Shereka went up as Anderson came down on her and snuck the ball up on the backboard just as the two collided for the deuce and one.
Truly, Shereka has eyes in the back of her head!
And so it played out, two top prize fighter teams boxing and jabbing all the way to the end. Today, it was Purdue, maybe another day... who knows? To be truthful, I would love a whole season of these two teams going at each other. And while the highly anticipated matchup of Valek vs. McElhiney did not disappoint, there really was no clear winner as both players directly contributed to over 30 points for each team!
Valek: 23 points, 6 assists for a direct contribution of 35 points
McElhiney: 10 points, 12 assists for a direct contribution of 34 points
Certainly Valek was quicker, more deadly off the dribble and the better shooter but McElhiney was the better floor general. Both are as tough as nails and have more spit and vinegar in them than all the bars and grocery stores in Arizona.
And while Purdue may move up in the polls after such a quality win, it would be a great disservice if Vanderbilt did not move up with them. But then, I don't park in a driveway, either.
I park in my garage.