Purdue started the season with an eye-opening victory and ended it with its biggest one ever.
Purdue, which beat defending three-time national champion Tennessee in its season opener, finished by winning its first title Sunday night with a 62-45 victory over Duke.
The championship game wasn't always pretty and it even got a little scary when All-American Stephanie White-McCarty left writhing in pain with a sprained ankle and the game still hanging in balance.
But the top-ranked Boilermakers (34-1), bouncing back from the worst half ever in an NCAA championship game, didn't buckle and finished with 32 straight victories.
"I cannot think of a better moment in my life than right now," Purdue coach Carolyn Peck said. "When the buzzer sounded, I immediately thought of those two seniors when they were in my office right after I was named head coach and them saying to me, `Coach, we can do this.' "
Purdue became a champion because those two seniors, Ukari Figgs and White-McCarty, who had gone through so many tough times early in their career, refused to get down after the team's terrible opening half.
They were the driving force in a 12-1 second half run that pulled the Boilermakers from behind and put them ahead to stay.
Figgs, scoreless in an 0-for-7 first half, had six points in the run and finished with 18 to earn the award as the outstanding player in the Final Four. White-McCarty had one basket and helped keep the team together with her poise before leaving with her injury.
"I know I let my team down in the first half," Figgs said. "I wasn't aggressive enough driving to the basket. I settled for too many outside shots and they weren't falling for me. I had 20 minutes to be a winner or a loser, and I wanted to go out a winner."
After its big run, Purdue made enough baskets and defensive stands down the stretch to keep Duke (29-7) at bay, even as White-McCarty sat out the final 4:01 after spraining her left ankle.
"I told Stephanie that I was pulling for her, that we had been through this before, and we'll take care of business for her," Figgs said.
The loss ended an improbable run through the tournament by Duke, as well as any hope of a unique "double" for the Blue Devils' basketball program. The Duke men are favored in Monday night's men's championship game with Connecticut.
The Duke women had earned their first Final Four trip by ending Tennessee's hopes for a fourth straight title, beating the Lady Vols in the East regional finals. But the Blue Devils' 45 points Sunday night were a season low and they shot only 32.7 percent.
"Things that work usually didn't work tonight," Duke's Georgia Schweitzer said. "You're going to have these nights. It's just unfortunate it had to happen tonight."
The championship was all the sweeter for White-McCarty and Figgs because of what they had endured earl in their careers. They played for three coaches in their first three seasons at Purdue and saw their team ripped apart when coach Lin Dunn was fired following their freshman year in 1996.
They were among just three players who stayed. Amazingly, two of those who left played for Duke Sunday night: Michele VanGorp and Nicole Erickson. VanGorp led Duke with 15 points.
"It means a lot. This is what we stayed for," White-McCarty said. "We stayed for the opportunity. The special group we have on this time makes it really nice and really special."
The victory also happily closed out Peck's brief but successful tenure at Purdue. Peck is leaving after just two seasons to become coach and general manager of the WNBA's Orlando Miracle.
As Peck was taking her turns cutting down a net, fans chanted, "Please don't go! Please don't go!"
Duke led 22-17 after a first half filled with turnovers and missed shots and was up 30-28 when Purdue started clicking by driving the ball to the basket instead of settling for jump shots.
Katie Douglas scored on a drive to start it. Then Figgs drove the left side of the lane for a bank shot that put Purdue ahead 32-30. It was a lead the Boilermakers would not relinquish.
After the 6-foot-6 VanGorp sank a free throw, Figgs drove past her for a basket, White-McCarty drove left and pulled up for a 10-footer, Camille Cooper made a layup and Figgs drove once more for a pull-up jumper to finish the run and make it 40-31.
VanGorp's layup drew Duke to 42-38 with 7:48 left, but Douglas sank a 3-pointer to widen the lead again and the Blue Devils would not get closer than five again.
"They were switching on screens and a lot of times we weren't open when we're used to being open and we just didn't adjust to it," Duke's Hilary Howard said. "The game just wasn't going well and we lost some confidence."
With about 4:20 left, White-McCarty collapsed to the floor after missing a shot. She spit her mouthguard about 10 feet away as she rolled on the floor in tears and pain while play continued at the other end.
Howard took advantage of Purdue's short-handed defense by making a 3-pointer to cut the lead 47-42 and the officials finally could stop the clock with 4:01 remaining to get White-McCarty off the floor.
She watched the rest of the game nervously from the bench, holding hands with assistant coach Kerry Cremeans or teammate Tiffany Young.
She need not have worried. Her teammates were too cool, too collected to let this one get away and they made 15 of 16 free throws in the final 3:49 to stay in control.
Purdue, as usual, had great balance. Douglas and Cooper each scored 13 points and White-McCarty had 12.
Early on, the game was downright ugly. Never before had so few points been scored in one half of a championship game.
|Camille Cooper and Purdue stuff Michele Van Gorp and Duke.(AP)|
The combined 107 points were the fewest in a championship game.
It all turned around for Purdue in the second half, and even White-McCarty was able to smile as she made her way on crutches to the victory stand, her left shoe and sock off and her ankle taped.
"Wow. I guess that's the best way to describe how I feel," Peck said. "Purdue has hung together all year long. When we lost Stephanie, our players stood strong."
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