It's a very good thing that April Wilson showed up for this game. In the home opener of the B1G schedule, Purdue was cruising at halftime 33-19. Playing a tough man-to-man defense, as far as I could tell, the Boilermakers kept the Fighting Illini offense off balance in the first half. I say as far as I can tell, because at times it looked like what Geno Auriemma would call a junk defense. Whatever it was it worked in the initial two quarters. April Wilson finished the first half with 18 points to totally dominate the first half. The second quarter was simply owned by Wilson, who scored 12 of her final 24 points in the 2nd stanza. Illinois only shot 25% from the floor in the first half.
In the third quarter, Illinois started to make a comeback, but only by one point, hitting 4 three pointers. Purdue lost the turnover battle, 5-0 in that quarter, but still held a decent lead. However, in the fourth quarter, Purdue's defense wore down, and Illinois outscored Purdue 29-20 in the final stanza, hitting 65% of their shots. This set the stage for Wilson and Thornton to seal the win from the free throw line as Purdue held on for the 4 point win.
With the very big Chatrice White in the post and some really efficient three point shooters, led by redshirt senior Kyley Simmons, I could see why Purdue stuck with man-to-man for most of the game. However, if the team is going to play that kind of tiring defense the entire game, perhaps that might explain the efficient scoring by Illinois in the last quarter. To keep up that kind of defense for an entire 40 minutes, perhaps more playing time should have been employed off the bench. However, that is hindsight, as if Purdue had gone into a zone, perhaps Illinois might have just lit it up from downtown in the final quarter. Whatever the reason, it looked like flirting with disaster, but still a win is a win. Illinois is not really a bad team although the past couple of weeks wouldn't prove it, as this was their fifth loss in a row. They lost an excellent post in Jacqui Grant in a transfer to DePaul for this season, and their celebrated freshman guard Ciera Rice was unable to play. Still, they have one of the best 3 point shooting teams in the Big Ten, get lots of steals, and have the center White clogging up the post.
While a win is great and this leaves Purdue with an 11-2 record overall and a good 2-0 conference record and completing 6 straight wins, things are about to get a whole lot tougher this coming Thursday at Northwestern. After a surprising loss to Penn State in their conference opener, the Wildcats trounced Nebraska at home today by 23 points. If the Boilers play like today against the Wildcats in their gym, it could be a long night. On the other hand we will hope that some of the shooting woes experienced today will not be repeated on Thursday. While Northwestern has 4 big time scoring options including all-conference player Nia Coffey, I don't think their defense is as good as ours. Which means the shots for Purdue better fall, especially from downtown, and a lot of defensive stops will be necessary, which will be more of a challenge than in perhaps any of the games so far this season. Joe McKeown has built a very good team at Northwestern, who has for this season the combination of height, experience, athleticism, depth, and offensive weapons galore.
Back to the Illinois game, April Wilson hit career highs in 24 points and 10 rebounds for the game. She also added 7 assists, leaving her 3 assists shy of only the third triple double in school history. It was all needed, too, as her supporting cast of Keys, Morrissette, and Perry all had rough days, shooting a combined 7 for 27 overall. Thornton had a good game with 8 points and 8 rebounds. McBryde, Hamby, and Horrocks added 8, 5, and 4 points off the bench to help with the win. The Boilers also won the rebounding edge, but barely by 2. Purdue had a subpar day from the 3 point line and foul line, shooting only 2-12 and 23-33 respectively. A big part of the offensive strategy, which worked fairly well, was to take the ball into the post and put it up there without any hesitation. While getting blocked a few times, it worked overall as Illinois committed 26 fouls and put Purdue on the line for 33 attempts. It could have been worse, but Purdue normally shoots much better from the foul line. Purdue committed less fouls and Illinois also struggled from the foul line. For Illinois, Chatrice White had a double-double with 18 points and 11 rebounds, and Simmons added 16 points, being their only two players in double figures for the game.
A quick look at the stat line would make a person wonder how we won this game. We lost the turnover battle and shot poorly for major stretches. Some of the turnovers were simply awful and self-inflicted. This was disappointing as Purdue has had a very good year in limiting turnovers, being ranked 18th in the country in that category nationwide coming into this game. However, overall, Purdue's defense played well for the first three quarters, and the offense played at a breakneck speed which often times kept Illinois from getting any kind of defense set up. Playing a fast game can lead to more turnovers, so in the end the strategy gave us the win.
After the exciting win up in Ann Arbor on Thursday, this game did not show the offense in any kind of sharp passing mode or overall efficiency or ball control. The exception being obviously Wilson's excellent shooting, along with some really nifty assists. Wilson has contributed 18 assists to only 1 turnover in the past two games, so clearly her game is under control. However, I have confidence in Coach Versyp to address the shortcomings in this game and prepare the team for a big road test at Northwestern. Better to learn from a close win than a loss.