For the first time in Purdue history, the Boilers are the No. 11 seed in the Big Ten tournament, where they opened up the tournament with a 72-60 victory over No. 14 seeded Illinois, leading in all but 19 seconds of the game.
Purdue is not usually seeded so low in the tournament; this marks just the third time in program history that the Boilers took the court on opening day. Historically, the Boilermakers have played well in the tournament, as they lead the Big Ten with 42 all-time wins in the tournament. Purdue has played in the championship game 14 times in 24 tries, six of those games under head coach Sharon Versyp. They have won four championships in Versyp’s tenure, and Purdue set out today to continue that success.
Purdue’s big three — Ae’Rianna Harris, Karissa McLaughlin and Dominique Oden — played well. But it was the bench that had the biggest effect on the game.
“Everybody said they wanted to step up and help their team,” Versyp said. “This is what we needed all season consistently.”
The Boilers opened the game at an extremely fast pace. They excelled in transition and were able to build an early lead over the Illini.
“We tried to control the tempo from the very get-go,” McLaughlin said. “Kayana (Traylor) being our point guard, she tries to push the ball as much as possible. That really gets us going. I think that if we continue to do that we’ll be successful.”
Purdue’s core players were helped the Boilers maintain the lead for the entirety of the first period. Late in the first quarter, Illinois was able to go on a 6-0 run to tighten the gap between the two teams. While the Illini were on their run, the Boilers went cold and ended the period with a 15-12 lead.
Lyndsey Whilby gave the Boilers a much-needed boost off of the bench in the second quarter. She had 8 points in the first half, including a last-second swipe and score to give Purdue a 6-point lead heading into the locker room. McLaughlin took a hard fall early in the fourth quarter, so Whilby came in and continued to be a spark plug. She knocked down two 3s and helped Purdue put the game out of reach. She ended with 14 points, three rebounds and two steals. To Versyp, the performance was monumental.
“Whilby coming in it was a huge X-factor on both ends of the floor,” Versyp said.
However, to Whilby, it was simply what she needed to do.
“I just wanted to win the game,” Whilby said. “I just wanted to help the team anyway I can. Today was just the day the ball went in for me.”
To her teammates, the impact was even larger.
“She was phenomenal tonight. She played out of her mind,” McLaughlin said. “Hopefully, she can carry it out tomorrow as well.”
Purdue came out in the second half and extended their lead by again pushing the pace and playing defense. Around the seven-minute mark, Harris went to the bench with foul trouble. When the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year goes down, struggles should be expected. However, the Boilers didn’t let that affect them today.
“We just played defense. Then our defense turned into offense,” Whilby said.
Purdue dominated the glass throughout the game. They won the rebound margin by 18. Freshman forward Nyagoa Gony pulled down seven rebounds while redshirt junior center Fatou Diagne grabbed two. Both players came off of the bench and were able to assert themselves in limited minutes.
Purdue made its scoring run while Harris was on the bench. They extended their lead to double digits and took claim of the momentum heading into the fourth quarter.
Defensively, Purdue was able to take the Illini’s senior forward, Alex Wittinger, completely out of the game. She has averaged nearly 15 points per game, but today she wasn’t able to reach double digits.
“We were trying to double team her and get the ball out of her hands as much as possible,” McLaughlin said.
Purdue has had games where multiple players step up and contribute, but normally it comes in spurts. Today, everybody got it going at once, making Purdue nearly impossible to defend.
“We could have been a dangerous team all year,” Vesryp said. “As we see it, this is a tournament. We play five games to win it. Now we just restart everything.”