Stars flop, rookies shine as season opens

Updated: November 20, 2003, 11:55 PM ET
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- And the award for best debut performance at the State Farm Tip-Off Classic goes to ... Texas' Tiffany Jackson? Purdue's Katie Gearlds? Duke's Brittany Hunter?

Well, how about Purdue's Emily Heikes?

Now, wait a minute, you say. Heikes is a junior; this wasn't her debut. She'd played 65 previous games for Purdue. Yes, but this was her first start, after being the ultimate team player her first two seasons. She took the minutes when they came, tried to do something with every chance she got.

On Sunday, with 11 points, seven rebounds and some very solid defense and leadership, Heikes was a big key in No. 9 Purdue's season-opening 79-69 victory over fifth-ranked Kansas State.

"I told Emily that after this game, the whole world would know who Emily Heikes was,'' Purdue coach Kristy Curry said.

The whole women's basketball world, anyway. Certainly, Purdue fans have known for a while and were eager to see how Heikes would respond to starting. Some of them thought she should have gotten that chance last season, but Heikes didn't mind.

"It was just like that in high school for me: my first two years I didn't start and then my last two I did,'' Heikes said. "I adjusted pretty well then, and I think I can do the same thing now. I think I'm ready for that.''

On Sunday, her Purdue team and third-ranked Texas -- which No. 2 beat Duke 85-77 -- looked the most ready. Meanwhile, the two players who were consensus first-team All-Americans last season and are on the preseason team for this year -- Duke's Alana Beard and Kansas State's Nicole Ohlde -- both had games that would rank with the worst they've played in their careers.

Beard was 4 of 17 from the field, finishing with 12 points. She had eight rebounds and seven assists, but only two steals. The things we're so used to seeing from Beard -- harassing and disrupting the opposing offense, penetrating to create her shot, turning on the jets on fast breaks that her defense usually sparks ... they just weren't there.

Beard called her performance "horrible.'' Duke coach Gail Goestenkors said, "She was wound up very, very tight beforehand. I told her the way she plays is the way we're going to play. She wants to do so much for this team. You want that urgency, but you also need some calm, and she wasn't able to do that.''

Meanwhile, Ohlde showed almost nothing that K-State fans are used to seeing. She was not aggressive, didn't demand the ball, didn't exploit her size advantage, didn't rebound with authority, didn't respond well to foul trouble.

Ohlde was 2 of 8 from the field, finishing with nine points and three rebounds. She said Purdue did a very good job of denying her the ball, but she also blamed herself for not being more active about getting it.

However, Ohlde did take some mid-range shots, a part of her game that is just starting to develop. Despite her size, she played a lot of guard in high school, and almost everything she has learned about post play has come in the last three years.

She's still figuring out all the things she's capable of. The Wildcats hope through the course of this season, she develops a pretty good understanding about that -- and then can show it against top opponents.

Kansas State's biggest problems of the past two years -- defense and lack of an experienced, effective point guard -- showed up again Sunday.

And guard Megan Mahoney missing so much of the game -- first to get five stitches over her left eye after a collision in the lane and then because of foul trouble -- hurt K-State on both ends.

The Wildcats simply have to dig deeper and play smarter on defense. As for the point guard, freshman Twiggy McIntyre has promise, but there's a steep learning curve for even the best of rookies.

Including Texas' Jackson (15 points), Purdue's Gearlds (10 points) and Duke's Hunter (16 points), who were high school All-Americans. Their coaches all talked about their defensive mistakes, but that is to be expected. The coaches also really liked the confident "I want to make plays'' attitude they saw from those three.

Said Texas' Jody Conradt of Jackson, "It's sort of a big challenge for a freshman to guard (Duke's) inside play. But she did pick it up, and made some clutch free throws.''

Goestenkors said, "I thought Brittany did a good job. She's not in the shape she needs to be, and she needs to learn the offense. But she'll get better; she did show some poise.''

Curry had been saying even before Gearlds and fellow freshman Erin Lawless arrived on Purdue's campus that she expected them to be impact players right away. Lawless had a good debut, Gearlds a sensational one.

"She has a chance to be as good as anybody who ever played here,'' Curry said of Gearlds, then smiled and added, "Gee, I'm putting a lot on her, first game. I better quit.''

Both of Sunday's winning teams had five players scoring in double figures. In Texas' case, three Longhorns led the way with 15 points each: Jackson, Heather Schreiber and Nina Norman.

Jamie Carey had 14 points and was, as usual, the person who kept the Longhorns' heads together -- especially when Duke came back from a halftime deficit and took the lead.

"Jamie calmed everybody down, and she really helped me out,'' Norman said. "It doesn't come out nice, but I know what she means.''

Everyone laughed at that, including Carey, who when asked if she could give a sanitized version of what she barked at her teammates, said, "I don't think that's possible.''

If so, it's about all that's impossible for Carey, a kid who has overcome her concussion problems and her transfer from a place she loved, Stanford. The NCAA this past week awarded Carey her fourth year of eligibility because of medical hardship, so she will be around next season as well for Texas.

"If the NCAA is really about giving student-athletes opportunities,'' Conradt said, "there's nobody more deserving. When you look at what she's done as an athlete and in the classroom, the NCAA did the right thing.''

So ... to recap, here's what the Tip-Off Classic showed:
  • Purdue's team defense, smart offense, four senior starters and terrific rookies are all things for fans to be excited about. Every Boiler who got in the game contributed something. Shereka Wright doesn't have to carry this team; no one player does.

    <.li>Texas has depth, defense, a great leader and the confidence that nothing else brings to a program the way going to a Final Four can.

  • Kansas State is the only one of these four schools that hasn't been to a Final Four, and it continues to work on confidence issues. But remember, just three years ago, the Wildcats could barely win a Big 12 game. Programs build on past success, but this group pretty much had sand to build on. There's a lot of work to do for any program to get a firm foundation. The Wildcats have to look hard at this loss and apply what it taught them.

  • Duke didn't attribute its 24 turnovers -- more than K-State and Purdue combined -- to the fact that the Blue Devils have had so little time, really, to practice as a complete unit because of injuries. But that probably did have something to do with Duke's offense working only in fits and starts.

    "I told them, 'Championship teams not only play hard, they play smart,' '' Goestenkors said of her postgame talk with the players. "We didn't do that. But after I finished yelling at them, I told them, 'It's a long season. It's not about how you play the first game, but how you play the last one. Keep it in perspective.' ''

    Mechelle Voepel is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. She can be reached at mvoepel@kcstar.com.

    Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.
  • ALSO SEE