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Friday, March 28
Updated: March 30, 5:05 PM ET
Valek running toward goal of Final Four

Associated Press

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Erika Valek has been to a Final Four. The problem is, Purdue's junior point guard never played in one.

She missed the opportunity in 2001 thanks to a torn anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee. Now, the only sign there was an injury is a six-inch scar from the surgery. The quickness, agility and footwork are back and her shooting is sharper than ever.

The only goal left is another trip to the national championship.

Valek takes another healthy step toward one when the second-seeded Boilermakers (28-5) play 11th-seed Notre Dame (21-10) Sunday in the East Regional semifinal in Dayton, Ohio.

"That's always in the back of my mind," Valek said. "I want to be able to go to a Final Four and say, 'Yeah I was there. I played.'"

So far, Valek has turned the tournament into her own pop-a-shot contest. She scored 23 points in a first-round game against Valparaiso and 24 against Virginia Tech to advance Purdue to the round of 16 for the eighth time.

She's a combined 16-for-28 from the floor and boosted her season scoring average to 14 points a game.

Not bad for someone who couldn't practice regularly last year.

"It was a very frustrating year," she said. "Sitting wasn't something I was accustomed to."

Not for someone used to being on the move.

Valek was born in Bucaramanga, Columbia, where her mother, Janeth, played on the national team. Her family moved to Lubbock, Texas, when she was 8 and she developed into a highly rated Parade All-American out of Coronado High School.

She chose Purdue over Texas Tech, started the first 33 games her freshman year and had the Boilermakers headed toward their second title game appearance in three years (they won in 1999).

Then, against her hometown Red Raiders in the Mideast Regional semifinal, Valek was running a fast break when she stepped on the foot of a Texas Tech player. She heard the pop in her knee and knew she had torn her ACL.

Valek's season was done and she could only watch as Notre Dame beat Purdue 68-66 for the national championship.

"It was a great learning experience, just to be there," she said. "It was kind of upsetting that I wasn't able to play."

It also slowed her development for most of her sophomore season. Coach Kristy Curry estimated Valek missed about 70 percent of practices last season and didn't make the improvement that was hoped.

Because depth was a problem last season, Valek wasn't redshirted, though Curry says now it would have been best. Still, she started all 30 games.

After an early second-round tournament exit, Valek stayed in West Lafayette over the summer and started feeling a difference. The knee didn't ache as much, she dropped a few pounds and became quicker.

She improved her game off the dribble and her ballhandling improved.

"Practices give you confidence," Valek said. "When you can't do that, the games become like practice and that's how you make more mistakes."

Valek is fully recovered from the injury. After averaging 6.4 and 7.6 points her first two years, Valek has only failed to reach double figures in nine games this year. She had consecutive 26-point games against Iowa and Northwestern and has connected on 41 percent of her 3-pointers this season (38-of-93).

"She's having the kind of year we thought she'd have her sophomore year," Curry said.

All Valek wants now is a chance to showcase herself on college basketball's biggest stage.

"Everything's feeling good now. Everything's falling into place," she said. "Now all we need is to win a championship."



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