March 30, 2003
By RUSTY MILLER
AP Sports Writer
DAYTON, Ohio – Purdue turned to its smallest player to get within one win of the Final Four.
Erika Valek scored 19 points and helped key an early second-half spurt as Purdue beat rival Notre Dame 66-47 Sunday in the East Regional semifinals.
“Erika Valek was an All-American today. She was the difference in the game,” Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said. “I didn’t think anybody else really hurt us. She really did the damage.”
The second-seeded Boilermakers (29-5) advance to meet defending champion and top-seeded Connecticut for a spot in the Final Four on Tuesday night. The Huskies beat Boston College 70-49 earlier in the day.
Valek injured her knee in the regional semifinals two years ago and didn’t get to play in the Final Four. She used that as incentive.
“It’s hard to be in the Final Four and not get to play,” the junior said. “So obviously that’s been a motivation factor. We want to get there and we want to be able to experience that.”
As for 11th-seeded Notre Dame, its upset streak came to a screeching halt. The Fighting Irish were the lowest remaining seed left in the tournament after beating No. 6 Arizona in the first round and No. 3 Kansas State in the second round.
“We overachieved a little in the NCAA tournament,” McGraw said.
Valek, at 5-foot-6 the smallest player on the floor, closed the half by hitting a 3-pointer with 2 seconds left to give Purdue a 33-29 lead.
That seemed to set the tone as the Boilermakers’ defense slammed the door on the Fighting Irish as they opened the second half on a 22-4 run.
“The bottom line was we felt like we weren’t rebounding and we felt like from free-throw line to free-throw line we were getting beat up and down the floor,” Purdue coach Kristy Curry said. “So the kids did a better job of picking up the intensity the first five minutes of the second half. It set the tone.
“Whoever delivered the first punch, it was a knockout.”
Notre Dame (21-11), which had lost to Purdue 71-54 at home on Jan. 4, managed just one field goal over the first 5? minutes of the second half. Purdue started to hurry the ball down the floor for easy baskets in transition.
Curry was upset with her team’s effort in the first half.
“We may not be the most talented team in the country but I expect our energy and effort to exceed anyone we play,” she said. “My kids took it up a level from that point on and it carried over after halftime.”
After Valek hit a foul shot, she threw an assist pass to Mary Jo Noon for a 15-foot jumper as the shot clock expired. Valek then hit a 10-foot jumper to make it 38-29.
The Fighting Irish’s Megan Duffy tossed in a left-handed layup in traffic before Purdue scored on six consecutive possessions during an 11-0 run.
Noon picked up a loose ball and scored inside, Lindsey Hicks slashed through the lane for a layup, Valek hit an 18-foot jumper, Beth Jones made a 3-pointer off a fastbreak pass from Valek and Noon hit a pair of foul shots to make it 49-31.
After Notre Dame’s Teresa Borton scored inside, Shereka Wright hit a short jumper and the Boilermakers added two more field goals for a 55-33 lead.
“We simply could not score,” McGraw said. “Defensively, they stepped it up a notch.”
Wright had 12 points and 10 rebounds, Noon added 12 points and Jones scored 10 points for the Boilermakers, who won their eighth straight.
Alicia Ratay led the Fighting Irish with 16 points.
Notre Dame’s leading scorer, Jacqueline Batteast, struggled once again. She hit just 2-of-26 shots from the field and scored five points in her team’s first two NCAA games.
She made 4-of-17 shots from the field and ended up with eight points.
The last time the teams met in the NCAA tournament, Notre Dame defeated Purdue 68-66 in the 2001 national championship game. Only four players from that game were around for Sunday’s rematch.
Curry said it was too early to start talking about Connecticut.
“I’m going to enjoy the Notre Dame game for about 10 minutes,” she said with a laugh. “That was a hard enough task.”