Healthy Boilermakers back on track for 2008-09
A cloud of doubt, fear, worry and anxiety. But with that and a pair of crutches, Purdue forward Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton boarded her flight home from Russia in July 2007.
The next-to-last night she was there with her USA Basketball squad, she had suffered a torn ACL. At the time, she wasn't 100 percent certain -- the confirmation would come later after an MRI at Purdue -- but she was sure enough to not be able to fool herself into believing it was something less.
"The whole travel experience back was horrible," she said, now able to laugh a little about it. "Hopping around on crutches, and then having all those hours to just sit there on the plane and think about things.
"I was thinking about the team and my coaches and how it was going to affect everybody. But then I did think about a lot of positive things in my life to keep from being too upset and said to myself, 'You can't sulk about this. You've got to move on.'"
She and the Boilermakers did that, and now she's back in action for a 5-1 team that's ranked 20th and is set to host No. 11 Maryland on Thursday. Wisdom-Hylton just earned Big Ten Player of the Week honors for her performance in Purdue's three games in Hawaii's tournament: wins over Hawaii and Prairie View and an overtime loss to No. 5 Stanford.
But to understand where Wisdom-Hylton and the Boilers are now, it's essential to reflect on what they went through last season. One of the things tormenting Wisdom-Hylton on that flight back from Russia was that she knew how much the Boilers were counting on her after losing seniors Katie Gearlds and Erin Lawless from their 2007 Elite Eight team. Wisdom-Hylton would have to provide moral support and energy from the sideline.
Then it got even worse for Purdue. Another starter, guard Jodi Howell, had shoulder surgery in September and November and also would miss the season.
At that point, coach Sharon Versyp saw the Boilermakers as like a skier who has started down the slope and realized, "Holy s-word. It's too steep and too icy but I can't turn around and go back. I'll just have to try to keep from wiping out too badly."
What the Boilers did was fall down and get back up. Repeat process. Again. And again. They lost three in a row on their November 2007 trip to the Virgin Islands. Then, this is what happened in their next 12 games: loss, win, loss, win, loss, win, loss, win, loss, win, loss, win.
Forget the Boilermakers. They were the Purdue Yo-yos.
"You weren't sure which team was going to show up," said Versyp, whose Boilers finished 19-15 last season. "We had role players who were expecting to play 5-10 minutes a game but now were needed to play 30.
"I really pulled a lot from my high school coaching days. Because these kids were really trying and so [the coaching staff] always found positives because their confidence was so fragile. We still had to push, and know when to be tough, but we kept saying our whole goal was to win the Big Ten tournament."
Led by Danielle Campbell, Lakisha "Ki-Ki" Freeman, FahKara Malone and Kalika France, Purdue persevered. The Boilers did indeed win the league tournament. That old "Indianapolis magic" came through again as Freeman made a shot at the buzzer to beat Illinois in the title game.
"I don't know exactly what it was, but toward the end of the year, people got riled up," Wisdom-Hylton said. "It showed how much we'd really grown as a team. I'm not sure just how to describe it, but it clicked. We were facing a do-or-die situation, and our team responded well to that."
The championship earned Purdue its 15th consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament, where the Boilers fell in the second round to eventual champion Tennessee. By that point, Wisdom-Hylton had adjusted emotionally to a season on the bench, but that particular game stung. She would have enjoyed going against Tennessee superstar Candace Parker, who -- like Wisdom-Hylton -- is from Naperville, Ill.
Still, the things Wisdom-Hylton learned from the year of having to watch were valuable, too. The oldest of four children, she's used to playing a bit of a surrogate-mother role to help out her parents. She applied that to basketball last season.
"My mom is a teacher, so I have that inside me, too," she said. "I try to teach my little sisters things, and I was kind of in that role with my teammates last year, too.
"When you're injured, it's huge to show support and still be strong for my team. That was kind of the hardest thing before games, because I'd be almost crying because I wanted to be out there playing. But I had to step up and be there for them. I'd try to be that extra level of communication between the players and the coaches."
Not everyone can do that gracefully, but Wisdom-Hylton did.
"She's a humble, laid-back and sweet kid," Versyp said. "She was so proud of what this team did last season. She's grown with confidence, and Katie did a good job two years of empowering her. She has a great way about her. People love to be around her."
(A side note on Gearlds: It really was impressive how much she worked to encourage Wisdom-Hylton, telling everyone she talked to how good a player Lindsay was. It was the kind of leadership every coach hopes to have from a senior, and it's still paying dividends for Purdue well after Gearlds' career there ended.)
Versyp is thrilled to have Wisdom-Hylton back, of course, and Howell. Those two have joined Malone, Campbell and Freeman in the starting lineup this season.
"Jodi is just the toughest kid that anybody's ever been around," Versyp said. "Danielle Campbell and Lindsay can be one of the best inside tandems around, I think. Danielle had to score last year, and her confidence level as a go-to post went up.
"Malone is an amazing point guard; she's the key to our team and one of the best defensive players I've ever coached. She was the only starter returning last year after graduation and those injuries, so she really had to hold it together."
And, as mentioned, so did Versyp. There were times last season when, to an outsider, she seemed almost freakishly calm. But that's because pushing the panic button wasn't going to help.
"We never put pressure on that group," she said. "They knew the tradition of Purdue and going to the NCAA tournament, but we never talked about it. When Ki-Ki Freeman hit that last shot at the buzzer [in the Big Ten title game], just to see our kids be so elated after what we endured every day, the highs and lows -- oh, I was so happy for them. We helped make them believers."
Mechelle Voepel is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.