Sept. 19, 1997

1997-98 Purdue Women's Basketball Preview


WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - What to do for an encore?

The 1996-97 Purdue Boilermakers truly were the talk of the women's basketball world. After being picked to finish in eighth place in the preseason Big Ten Conference coaches' poll, a determined group of 11 players (including four walkons), backed by an enthusiastic coaching staff, achieved its goal of winning the conference championship and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

Now, the 1997-98 team, under first-year head coach Carolyn Peck, is determined to beat the odds again. Few of the so-called experts are ranking the Boilermakers among their preseason top 25 teams, and fewer, if any, are tabbing them to capture another Big Ten title. Little respect for a squad that won 11 of its last 16 games to finish 17-11 overall, 12-4 in the Big Ten and No. 23 in the final USA Today/CNN poll.

"I'm sure most people look at Purdue, see that I'm a first-year coach and figure us to be in for a rebuilding year," says Peck, who was an assistant coach for the silver-medal winning 1997 USA Jones Cup team. "But I guarantee you there isn't a player or coach on this team who feels that way. We are out to build on our success of a year ago and take it a step further (i.e. the NCAA Women's Final Four and a national championship)."

If anyone should have a feel for the Boilermakers, it's Peck. Why? She was an assistant coach on the team last season and, as the program's recruiting coordinator, played a major role in Purdue signing a five-person freshman class that was ranked as high as fifth in the nation.

"We have 13 young women who are first-class individuals, and I am honored to be their head coach," Peck says. "They all have tremendous work ethics and big hearts. The will to win is nothing without the will to prepare, and they all have the will to prepare to win. That's how we won games last year, and that's how we will win games this year. People will see a team that works extremely hard and is fun to watch."

Following is a position-by-position look at the 1997-98 Boilermakers:

Guard

Ukari Figgs, a 5-9 junior, returns at the point after averaging 9.6 points (fourth on team), 3.5 rebounds and 3.1 assists (second on team) and sharing the team lead with 32 three-point field goals. She came on strong during the final month, including a snappy 4-for-5 three-point shooting performance in the Boilermakers' Big Ten title-clinching game at Illinois.

"Ukari developed so much last year," Peck says. "Not only did she improve her skills, but she emerged as a leader, and that's exactly what you need from your point guard. Her teammates respect her, she's a great coach on the floor, and I am extremely happy to have her for two more years."

Junior shooting guard Stephanie White (5-11) is Purdue's leading returning scorer at 16.4 points per game (second on the team). She topped last year's squad with 4.4 assists, ranked second with 58 steals and was third with 5.2 rebounds. White tied Figgs for the team lead with 32 three-pointers and shot 78.4 percent from the free throw line. A member of the 1997 USA Jones Cup team, White will continue to spell Figgs occasionally at the point.

"I think after last year everyone realizes how much Stephanie can do and how valuable she is to our team," Peck says. "She can score, rebound, pass and, most importantly, lead by example. In my opinion, Steph and Ukari give us one of the best, if not the best, backcourts in the country. And they will only get better."

Also back in the fold are sophomores Tiffany Young (5-11), Danielle Bird (5-7) and Shayla Potter (5-6).

Young, a shooting guard who was a member of the 1997 Big Ten All-Star team that traveled to Austria and Slovakia, averaged 2.6 points and 1.4 rebounds in 27 games last season. She enjoyed her best game against Ball State in the Big 4 Classic with 16 points and seven rebounds.

"Tiffany learned a lot as a freshman and followed that up by being on the Big Ten All-Star team," Peck says. "She has more confidence now. Tiffany can help us with both her ability to shoot the three-pointer and play aggressive defense, plus she has a wonderful attitude that is very contagious."

Bird, one of three returning walkons, appeared in six games and totaled four points, eight rebounds, two assists and a ton of enthusiasm. Meanwhile, Potter, another walkon, saw action in four games a year ago, made both of her shots from the field and had two rebounds and two assists.

"The contributions made by our walkons last season were not measured on the stat sheet," Peck says. "But they were extremely valuable to us in practice, on the bench and when they did get into a game. You need people like that who understand their role and are willing to do anything without getting a lot of credit for a job well done."

Joining the mix is 6-1 freshman Katie Douglas, who may very well start at small forward. Douglas, a left-hander, was a point guard at Perry Meridian High School in Indianapolis, Ind., but she obviously has the size to play on the wing. Douglas was a third team prep All-American by Parade magazine, runner-up for Indiana Miss Basketball, an Indiana All-Star and first team all-state after averaging 18.8 points, 6.0 rebounds, 5.8 assists and 4.8 steals per game as a senior. She graduated as the school's career scoring leader with 1,406 points and played for a team that finished 26-1, won the regional championship and was ranked No. 1 in the state much of her senior season.

"Katie's versatility will help us tremendously," Peck says. "She has the ability to penetrate to the basket and either put up the shot or dish the ball off to an open player. Our team will have to be ready to receive the ball because Katie can give it up quickly. She sees the floor well and can throw the ball the length of the court. Over the last year, I have seen her improve her outside shot a lot, which will help her all-around game."

Another freshman, 5-11 Mo-nique Langston, is a bona fide three-point shooter who also can play small forward. She is a solid rebounder and a blue-collar worker with a great attitude. Langston was a California All-Star, second team all-state and the Kern County Player-of-the-Year after averaging 20.1 points, 10.7 rebounds and 3.8 assists as a senior at Bakersfield North High School.

"Mo-nique is another player who can play a couple of positions," Peck says. "She shoots the ball very well from the outside and is a good rebounder. Her determination and drive will be just what we're looking for when we need someone to knock down an outside shot or get a key offensive rebound."

Forward

Sophomore Mackenzie Curless (6-1) started all 28 games at power forward a year ago and averaged 5.5 points and 4.1 rebounds per game. She busted out during the NCAA Tournament, averaging 13.0 points and 7.5 rebounds in two games while shooting a robust 84.6 percent from the field (11-for-13). Curless scored a season-high 18 points in the Boilermakers' first-round victory over Maryland.

"Mackenzie did a great job as a freshman and really stepped up her game down the stretch," Peck says. "She worked extremely hard over the summer on her offensive moves and also has improved her quickness. I'm looking forward to her picking up right where she left off in the NCAA Tournament and having a great year."

Also back is 6-0 sophomore Michelle Duhart, who wreaked havoc on opponents' offenses with her stellar defensive post play. Duhart shot 57.1 percent from the field in limited offensive opportunities to go with 2.0 points and 3.2 rebounds per game and 34 steals (fourth on team and eighth on school freshman list). Duhart underwent offseason surgery on both of her shoulders to stabilize the shoulder capsules that required her to wear a protective brace during the season. She is recovering in fine fashion.

"Michelle truly was our unsung hero last year," Peck says. "Her defense on some of the best post players in the country went a long way in our winning a lot of games. With her shoulder problems behind her, I anticipate Michelle's offense to become more of a factor. She is so quick and has great knowledge of the game."

Sophomore Amy Shaffer (6-0), the third walkon, returns after playing in four games last season. She was an Academic All-Big Ten honoree.

"Because we had a limited number of post players last season, Amy was very important to us in practice and in the games she did play," Peck says. "She's a hard worker who wants to contribute any way she can."

Newcomers include Candi Crawford (6-1) and Connie Murdock (6-2).

Crawford is a phenomenal athlete who can jump out of her shoes, runs the floor well and is naturally strong. She was an Indiana All-Star, second team all-state selection and the Fort Wayne Area Player-of-the-Year after averaging 16.7 points and 10.3 rebounds per game while shooting 54 percent from the field as a senior at Homestead High School. She graduated the holder of school career records for points (1,229) and rebounds (929) and was the state champion in the discus her junior year.

"Strength is Candi's biggest asset, along with her tremendous work ethic," Peck says. "She's a workhorse. I'm excited about having her on my team because she's an intense defensive player who never says die and at the same time is a strong offensive player."

Murdock is a versatile performer who can play either forward position. She was an Indiana All-Star, second team all-state and honorable mention academic all-state after averaging 14.8 points, 12.0 rebounds and 3.5 blocked shots per game as a senior at South Bend (Ind.) Clay High School. She is her school's career record holder in points (1,076), rebounds (963) and blocks (319). Murdock's team won the sectional championship and finished with a 20-2 record her senior season.

"Connie has great leaping ability, extreme quickness and good ball-handling skills for her size," Peck says. "The key for her will be to improve her strength and work on her outside shot. Her rebounding is very strong and will help us immediately."

Center

Purdue succeeded last season without a true post player, but this year they have 6-4 freshman Camille Cooper, who has the physical ability to play on the block yet runs the floor like a guard. She was a Kentucky All-Star, first team all-state and region Most Valuable Player after averaging 28.1 points, 12.0 rebounds and six blocked shots per game while shooting 70 percent from the field as a senior at Scott County High School in Georgetown, Ky. Cooper scored a school-record 50 points in a game twice during her senior campaign, and she was a member of the state championship team (with Ukari Figgs) as a sophomore.

"Camille is an athlete," Peck says. "She can get up and down the floor well, which will enable us to run when the opportunity presents itself, and she plays good post defense. She has extremely long arms and can block a lot of shots. Offensively, she has a nice shot and finishes well, but she will need to work on her strength."

The Schedule

Three of the 1997 NCAA Women's Final Four teams highlight the 1997-98 schedule, which ranks among the most-formidable in school history. The Boilermakers play host to Stanford on Sunday, Nov. 23, travel to Old Dominion on Wednesday, Nov. 26 and visit intrastate rival Notre Dame on Wednesday, Dec. 10.

Following a pair of exhibition games Nov. 4 and Nov. 11, the regular season opens Sunday, Nov. 16 with the Big 4 Classic in Mackey Arena. The Boilermakers play Indiana State, while Ball State takes on Indiana. Other highlights include the Florida International Thanksgiving Tournament in Miami with Furman and Michigan on Nov. 28-29; the Big Ten/Southeastern Conference Challenge against Florida in Knoxville, Tenn., on Dec. 12; and the Boilermaker BlockBuster with Arizona on Dec. 20.

"There's no question we have a challenging schedule," Peck says. "But I am a firm believer in playing the best competition possible to prepare for both the conference season and the NCAA Tournament. Our players are extremely confident coming off our success a year ago, and they are excited about the teams we are going to face this season."

The Big Ten portion of the schedule begins Sunday, Dec. 28 at Illinois, and the conference tournament, now in its fourth year, is set for Feb. 27-March 2 at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis. For the second straight season, Purdue will play the same four Big Ten teams just once each: at Penn State on Jan. 18, Ohio State at home on Jan. 23, at Indiana (Barn Burner Trophy) on Jan. 25 and Minnesota at home Jan. 30.

"The Big Ten season is always tough, and I think the race is going to be every bit as wild as last season and maybe more so," Peck says. "It will be interesting to see where we are picked. But as we said last year when we were picked eighth, 'It doesn't matter where you start, it's where you finish.'"

The stage has been set for another season of Purdue basketball that figures to have everyone talking. Please hold your applause.