WBB Alone In First After Holding Off Minnesota, 84-72

WBB Alone In First After Holding Off Minnesota, 84-72

When last we left Sharon Versyp's squad, they hadn't lost since December 3 and were preparing for conference play ... fast-forward to tonight and not much has changed. The Boilers still haven't lost since December 3, and thanks partly to some interesting bounces, partly to an unbalanced schedule, and partly to clutch play, they're now alone in first place at 5-0, thanks to Northwestern's upset of Ohio State in Evanston tonight. The bad news is that Purdue travels to Columbus on Sunday; the good news is that a worst-case scenario is a three-way tie with the Buckeyes and Maryland (who edged Michigan in Ann Arbor and face the 'Cats in College Park Sunday).

Coming into the game, there was no question as to the Boilers' focus on defense: like Purdue, Minnesota is guard-driven, but unlike Purdue, the Gophers run through two scorers, Rachel Banham and Carlie Wagner. The two have combined for just over 43 PPG at roughly the halfway point in the season, which comes out to a little more than half the team's points (Minnesota was averaging 80.1 prior to tonight). With a distinct lack of post experience (also like Purdue), you'd expect a lot of possessions to run through Banham and Wagner, so naturally, that's where your focus would be, right?

Well, if you're Versyp, you'd be right, at least. Andreona Keys shadowed Banham for most of the first quarter, holding the senior to just two shot attempts with one made 3. Wagner also struggled, just 2 of 7, so if you thought the Boilers would be blowing out Minnesota, you'd be ... wrong, actually. April Wilson started just 1-7 in Q1, and even though Purdue pressured the Gopher guards into seven turnovers, they had "only" 10 points off them, in large part because the dreaded Basket Seal had returned.

Still, Purdue was playing so well that they still had 24 points in 10 minutes. After an Allina Starr and-one tied the game at 7 (Minnesota led once, at 4-3), the Boilers ran off 13 straight points despite missing 8 shots in that sequence. Minnesota's possessions were: miss by Wagner, turnover, turnover, missed three, turnover, missed two, missed two/turnover, turnover, missed two/turnover. Wagner finally broke the run with a layup, Banham hit a three, Wagner hit two free throws, and suddenly it was a six-point game again. This would be a theme all night: Purdue stretching the lead, then Minnesota using their stars to get close, but never quite tie it up again.

Those turnovers were, in large part, due to excellent coaching and execution by Purdue. (We don't always get to say that, do we?) Apparently the book on Minnesota's guards is that they don't pass that well under pressure, so on the pick-and-roll, the bigs should hedge hard ... and boy, did they. Bree Horrocks in particular would actually end up out on Banham or Wagner for a bit, and sure enough, not once did that strategy burn the Boilers. It could be argued that Purdue is better off with anyone else having the ball in their hands (foreshadowing!), so that's how they played it.

In the second quarter, everyone cooled off except for McBryde. The freshman was the only one above .500 for the period, hitting 3 of 4, giving her 14 points and 7 rebounds at halftime. Minnesota shot 3 of 16 from the field, the big two went 2 of 10, and Purdue led 36-24, which at that point seemed like a perfect pace for them. Minnesota couldn't find someone to match up with McBryde, so Purdue possessions basically consisted of waiting for an opening, feeding McBryde, and watching her score.

On to the third, where Purdue came roaring out on an 8-2 run, stretching the lead to 18. Two turnovers and a missed shot, and Marlene Stollings had seen enough. She called a quick timeout and presumably said something like "if you were planning on getting back into this game, now would be the time to do it."

Even after that, the teams traded points for a while; it was 48-30 after a pair of McBryde free throws with 4:28 to play. After two quick Banham baskets, what could have been the turning point was something that we've seen all too often this year: Keys drove baseline and picked up a controversial charging call. It was her third foul, and because Versyp is like all 680-some other DI coaches, auto-bench kicked in, and Keys would sit for the remainder of the quarter. She'd picked up two quick fouls early in the second and sat for the rest of that quarter (unlike most other games, these refs were pretty good, so while foul #3 was probably crap, Keys, like Bridget Perry, does tend to make up her mind too early, so I can understand the call).

Unlike the first auto-bench, the second one proved to be costly. It was 48-34 when Keys sat down, and Minnesota's next possessions read Wagner layup, Mullaney jumper, Banham 3, missed three, Banham layup, Banham 3, Wagner 3. Suddenly it was 53-49, and Purdue's lack of depth had become a problem. With Hayden Hamby out again (unlikely to return in January), Tiara Murphy just getting her legs under her (literally, as she's hopefully completely healed from a stress fracture), and Justine Hall at Oregon, the Boilers dressed only nine scholarship players (sadly, walk-on Abby Abel doesn't look to get much playing time), and with the other guards already on the floor, it was up to Bridget Perry to guard Banham. That ... didn't go so well, as you'd expect when someone out of position is guarding a star.

Speaking of Starr, she hit a layup to start Q4, and Purdue's lead was down to 2. Ashley Morrissette hit a two, but Mullaney answered with a three, and 55-54 seemed like a completely different game. This isn't Purdue-Iowa on the men's side, is it?

No. Wilson fed Perry to make it 57-54, and after a Minnesota foul, Perry fed Wilson for three. Wagner drew iron, and after a whole lot of nothing, including two missed free throws by sophomore Austrailian center Jessie Edwards (I'm not kidding, that's how the program spelled it - the country, not her name, come on people), a Wilson basket got the lead back to 10, 64-54, and that was pretty much that. The Gophers did their best to make Purdue look impressive, committing 12 fouls in the quarter (at least the Boilers were 14-17 from the line) as part of a 31-point Purdue outburst. Mind you, three of these fouls came with Purdue up at least 11 and less than 40 seconds to play ... this is the first time I've watched Stollings coach, so I don't know if this was an aberration or if she's one of those people who thinks everyone enjoys needless fouls once the game's been decided.

Anyway. The fine finish meant Purdue stayed unbeaten in the Big 14, and thanks to Northwestern (and OSU's earlier win over Maryland, the Terrapins' first loss as a member of the Bee One Gee), if you can find a site that has updated conference standings, it'll show Purdue and no one else at 5-0. Are they this good? Probably not. Yes, they're two shots away from being unbeaten, but honestly, Stanford and Louisville are their only quality opponents so far. Home-and-homes with Maryland and Iowa, plus one-offs against OSU, MSU and Rutgers, should give us a better picture of where this team stands, but for now, it's safe to say they're at least playing top-20 ball. Massey had them at 18 coming into tonight, and they may well rise a spot or two prior to Sunday's trip to Columbus.

Other thoughts from tonight, courtesy of yours truly and my pals in Section 18, the best section with no band members in the house. (The folks behind me have seen a lot of Purdue basketball and provide valuable insights for me.)

  • McBryde was a monster: 22 points on 14 shot equivalents, 8 boards, 2 steals in 22 minutes. Prior to this, she'd already moved up to the #2 frontcourt spot in minutes behind Perry. After this ... granted, the Minnesota matchup was favorable, and not all of them may be, but let's give her a shot, shall we?
  • Horrocks had 6 points and 11 boards in 21 minutes. She didn't reach double figures in points (if Perry hadn't gone 3-7 from the line, she'd have been the fifth Boiler with 10+), but that's not Purdue's focus, and this is really the first game where she's been able to go up and come down with rebounds regularly. It sounds silly to talk about a 6'5" player that way, but it's level of competition, right? If you're easily taller than most women you play against, you're not necessarily going to practice proper rebounding technique, because you don't need it. Now, start playing at a power-conference school, and suddenly you can't just reach up and grab rebounds. If Horrocks can work on receiving passes and keeping the ball high (a strength McBryde already shows), Purdue will have a solid lineup next season ... and of course that'll help even more this year.
  • Wilson was an unimpressive 5-18, but a number of those shots looked good and just didn't fall. She did score 13 in the fourth quarter, so her totals looked better, but she needed help from someone else today, and McBryde was that person.
  • Perry had a solid all-around game: 9 points, 8 boards, 5 assists, 2 blocks, 1 steal. That's why it's important for her and Keys to cut down on the charging fouls, because Purdue struggles enough with one of them out. With both on the bench, there isn't much left. 
  • Banham finished 12 of 24 for 27 points (three threes, no FTs). Wagner was 6-20, 21 points on 24 shot equivalents. It sounds funny to say that Keys really limited whichever one she was guarding until you realize that impact. Look at their win over Illinois: Banham had 39 on 22 shot equivalents (10 of 15 from three!), and that was enough to blow out the Illini: six Gophers scored 10 or more. Against Purdue, no one else was in double figures. Defense is hard to properly score, so trust us when we say how much Andreona's presence meant tonight. (Also, another shout-out to the bigs for playing solid perimeter D. There was even one possession where Torrie Thornton was on Banham, and Banham didn't get a shot.)

Up next: the one game this year against Ohio State. THANKS DELANY. They're offering $85 trips for the game, $75 if you're part of the Boilermaker Network. I'd go, but I'm allergic* to Columbus. Also if I see a game in the Schott, I'm just going to be that much more angry when I come back to Mackey and see ad-crowded scoreboards, narrow seats and one out-of-town score update per game. (Seriously. You'd think they'd make more of a deal out of OSU losing, but then maybe they can't keep track of all the teams in the conference anymore.)

*I have actually been to Columbus before, and it seems like it could have been a nice city, but ... you can take the kid out of Ann Arbor, etc. etc.

Feature image from Purdue Sports

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