© Old Gold Free Press Columnists
Wha happened? Wasn’t Thursday afternoon’s game pitting the Michigan State Spartans against the Purdue Boilermakers supposed to be another W for the home team? Didn’t the solid road wins the Boilers enjoyed against Iowa and Illinois indicate that this team had finally turned a corner? Instead of building on their recent successes, however, the squad took an enormous step back. On Thursday, it was the same old uninspired, scoring-drought queens who took the court. As has been the case in far too many contests, they were able to go ahead in the second half, but unable to generate the consistent scoring or defensive stops needed to hold on for the win.
The game was frustrating for fans to watch. The team appeared in the first half as if they were severely hung over from New Year’s Eve festivities. After an initial flurry, the Old Gold and Black went through the motions as the Spartans racked up a 10 point lead. The Boilers finally began putting together some stops as the half wound down, and managed to cut into the deficit before going into the locker room by 6, 31-25.
The second half opened poorly for the Boilers as the Spartans scored two quick transition baskets to open up a ten point lead a few minutes in. Then Purdue began playing full court defense – they caused several turnovers by trapping the ball or forcing a steal. In one notable sequence, Brittany Rayburn intercepted a pass and went in for a break away lay-up. She was tackled in the air, and went down hard. An intentional foul was called, and this energized the Boilers. They made up the deficit, and then went ahead by 8 points. Unfortunately, after the press was called off the team went back onto auto-pilot and the Spartans again pulled ahead. Despite its success earlier in the half, the Boilers failed to mount an effective press or play intense defense as the Spartans regained the lead. A last second three point shot by FahKara Malone tied the game and sent it into overtime.
The overtime period began just like the second half – with the Spartans having no trouble breaking down Purdue’s defense and scoring 2 quick field goals. In the possession following MSU’s second score, FahKara went for a loose ball and injured her hand. She suffered an open dislocation of her shooting hand ring finger. It is not clear if bone was actually sticking out of skin, but at the sight of the injury the players blanched and became visibly upset. Despite Versyp’s efforts to re-focus the group, they were too rattled to do much and only managed 3 points in the overtime period to MSU’s 9. The final score was 68-62.
Malone’s injury completely changes the team’s prospects for the rest of the season. They lose a tough on-ball defender and one of their fastest players. The team’s climb to the NCAA tournament and national respect just got a whole lot steeper.
At this point in the season one can say the following: The team has underachieved, and in most if not all of their games they are playing much worse than the individual talents of the players indicate. The team is surprisingly poor at defense and rebounding. This would suggest that it is effort that is lacking as these two aspects of the game are more determined by effort and desire than physical talent. The mystery is why the struggles are occurring. The team is talented, by all reports they like each other and have good chemistry, and they all want to win games. It is a puzzle to the coaching staff, who say that the team looks completely different in its practices, so they are having a difficult time addressing the poor play during contests. What’s even more odd about this situation is the fact that the Boilers are extremely top-heavy with 5 seniors on the roster. In many instances, players find a sense of intensity and focus during their senior season that had been missing earlier. They see their time playing basketball winding down, and realize that every minute is precious. Not so this year’s edition of the Purdue Boilermakers. The seniors play as if they have another 3 years left in uniform, rather than 3 months. It is the freshmen who play with the most intensity on this year’s squad.
Before the season began, the word the coaching staff wanted to instill in the players was “Tennessee”. The Boilers were to play every possession with the intensity and authority of the Lady Volunteers. To put it bluntly – that hasn’t happened. What has not yet been pointed out (till now) is that for the Purdue players to play like the Lady Vols, Sharon Versyp will need to coach like Pat Summitt. That hasn’t happened either, not by a long stretch. Admittedly my conclusions are reached through watching the Volunteers play on TV and by listening when Summitt wears a live mike, but I’ve never seen her watch her players get out hustled on the boards or beaten in transition without making a swift substitution. Summitt will sit any player she feels isn’t pulling her weight. This results in lots of players shuttling in and out, and Tennessee games in which the offense often looks ragged and uneven. But Summitt’s record speaks for itself. Perhaps there’s something to rewarding effort with playing time over execution.
For whatever reason, Versyp has no trouble watching her starters dog it for huge chunks of time. Her patience with the starters is equaled by her toughness on the bench players. A mistake results in a rapid return to the pine, ensuring that they’ll become increasingly tentative as the season wears on.
A case in point from Thursday’s contest was the play of Alex Guyton. Guyton is a physical post who could have possibly helped equalize the 47-29 rebounding discrepancy the Spartans enjoyed during the game. She was inserted into the game in the first half, at a point when the Spartans were pulling ahead and the Boilers were getting antsy. She threw up a quick shot as soon as she touched the ball. It was a freshman mistake, and one can’t fault Versyp for pulling her. But the Boilers really, really needed a tough, strong post presence for much of the game; should taking a bad shot really be a reason to remove one of your team’s better options in this regard?
Having said all that, Versyp is an excellent coach, one who swears by tight defense and tough minded play. Her teams in previous years did play excellent defense and were tough as nails, and it’s unlikely she forgot everything she knew over the summer. It is as much a mystery as to why she is giving the lack luster play a pass as why the players are performing at such a low standard.
Losing FahKara will shake everything up, and perhaps when the pieces settle they’ll fall in a way that allows the team to play as a more cohesive unit. Even if this does not result in more wins (and with FahKara gone there’s little change of that), for the sake of the future, one hopes that the team will use the adversity to grow and improve.