March 2, 2023
How Katie Gearlds got Purdue back on track
'I'm just excited to watch it unfold for our group'
Lasha Petree talks about Purdue like she’s played there for years.
“We won more games this year than we did last year.”
“Last year, we lost in the second round to Indiana (in the Big Ten tournament),” she says.
Contrary to what she’d make you believe, the 2022-23 season is Petree’s only year in West Lafayette, after previously playing at Bradley and Rutgers. But she’s made the most of this one year. The leading scorer for the Boilermakers is averaging 15 points per game, a big reason why Purdue (18-9; 9-8 Big Ten) finds itself in a potential position for its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2017 heading into Thursday night’s Big Ten Tournament opener against Wisconsin.
The program endured a tumultuous last few seasons. Contrary to Illinois – a program that had bottomed out for several years before experiencing a resurrection this season under first-year coach Shauna Green – Purdue was stuck in mediocrity. The Boilermakers had finished 9-7 at best and 4-14 at worst in conference play since that last tournament appearance.
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In March 2021, the program announced that Katie Gearlds would join then-head coach Sharon Versyp’s staff as an associate head coach for the 2021-22 season before taking over the program thereafter. But in mid-September that year, Versyp abruptly retired; a university investigation revolving around her treatment of players had become public a month earlier.
Gearlds, thrust into her new job unexpectedly, didn’t have a ton of time to settle in before the season. Purdue still played respectably considering, finishing the year 17-15 overall and 7-11 in the Big Ten.
“Last year, we wanted to compete, we wanted to be hard to beat, and we were,” she says. “But it was almost like we didn’t know how to win yet. The expectation to win was maybe just a little bit too much.”
Then, Petree and Caitlyn Harper transferred into the program, and the Boilermakers brought seven players back from last year’s team. The mindset shifted. Reaching the NCAA tournament became the expectation.
“We understood that we weren’t going to win the Big Ten,” Gearlds says. “But we also understood that we had an opportunity to get back to the tournament and leave a legacy that this was the group, that this was the team that started Purdue women’s basketball back on the right track.”
Nothing quite like this one
More than anyone, the Purdue old gold and black runs through Gearlds’ veins. Of course, she played at the university from 2003-2007. Guiding the Boilermakers back to the success they experienced while she played became personal.
“Coach is really good at getting people to buy in through her passion for the game and for Purdue,” fifth-year senior Cassidy Hardin says. “You can tell how much she wants Purdue to be back on top, what she’s trying to build here, where she’s trying to get us.”
Any coach of a successful team often quickly credits their players for any success; players often quickly reciprocate, highlighting their coach’s ability to put them in position to win games.
With Purdue this season, both sides of the coin deserve recognition.
On the player side, the relationships they’ve built among each other has sustained this group since the first practice.
“One thing that was really noticeable right off the bat was how close this team was early on,” Hardin says. “I’m sure I’ve had some close teams but nothing quite like this one.”
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Adds Petree: “We all had the common goal to make the program better. We gelled really well in that way, and that allowed us to bond and play for the same purpose on the court.”
Players like Hardin and Petree know that the long-term success for the program will come after their careers are over. But they also understand – and are quite passionate about – creating that solid bedrock for Gearlds and the younger players to continue to build off of.
“There’s such a pride being out here,” Gearlds says. “It’s been so easy with this group because they’ve just grabbed onto it. They understand what it used to be. They want it to be their legacy, like, ‘Let’s be the group that gets us back on track.’”
The journey back in the right direction accelerated in late January, after Purdue took down No. 22 Illinois and No. 2 Ohio State in back-to-back road games.
They were the type of wins that had eluded the program for some time. Hardin had never experienced anything like it in her previous four years with the team.
“It really cemented that this team could do something special on any given night,” she says. “We could go out and beat someone that people wouldn’t expect us to.”
Get a quick bucket
Float around the Big Ten and you’ll hear coaches emphasize different aspects of the game that’re key to a team’s success. For Gearlds, it’s all about playing fast on offense.
“She wants us to push the ball,” says Petree. “If we can get a quick bucket, she tells us every single time to get a quick bucket.”
Five years ago, this philosophy wasn’t as common across the Big Ten; perhaps Maryland and Iowa were the notable programs to play this way. Programs like Indiana and Northwestern and Rutgers under C. Vivian Stringer wanted to grind down opponents. Now, even Teri Moren’s Hoosiers value offense in a way comparable to Iowa and Maryland.
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For Purdue this year, the philosophy makes sense because like many teams without top-tier talent, it helps mask deficiencies in their halfcourt offense.
“If we can get out in the open floor, we put a little bit more pressure on the opposing team,” Gearlds says. “Just kind of makes for a tough guard.”
The metrics don’t fully back up the Boilermakers as playing the fastest. In terms of pace, Purdue is somewhat middle of the pack, in the 63rd percentile per Her Hoop Stats. But, the program is also top-60 in offensive rating, which would be its best mark since the 2013-14 season.
In addition, when the offense is out in transition, Purdue’s in the 97th percentile in points per possession, compared to the 80th when playing in the halfcourt, according to Synergy Sports.
In other words, the offense is heading in the right direction, but it’s not quite yet at a level with Iowa or Maryland or Indiana or Michigan. But that’s also part of the reason why Purdue finds itself on the NCAA tournament bubble.
If Purdue wants to compete for Big Ten championships in the future, they’ll have to take that next step offensively.
“I think for the most part, our conference is kind of getting away from that slugfest, and teams are wanting to be a little bit more like Maryland and Iowa and Ohio State, and get out in the open floor,” says Gearlds. “I think that’s just where our league is going. It’s fun to watch.”
Unlike any other feeling
Gearlds’ resurrection of Purdue has also served as a reminder of just how loud home games at Mackey Arena can become, and – quite frankly – speaks to the continued growth of women’s college basketball.
Even road games with fans who might not be there to cheer for the Boilermakers feature packed arenas.
“The Big Ten has just been so special in fan attendance this year,” Gearlds says. “You had two sellout crowds for both of our games with Indiana. We played in front of 11,500 at their place, in front of 8,600 at Ohio State.”
Bringing out the Purdue faithful to produce that raucous home environment, comparable to that of Big Ten rivals, stands as another key to the long-term strength of the program.
“I think this group that we have has helped bring back some of those fans that used to be here back in the day,” Gearlds says.
She would know. She played in front of a lot of them.
The significance isn’t lost on the players either.
“I feel like there were two or three weeks in a row where I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is the biggest crowd I’ve ever played in front of,’” Petree says. “And then the next game I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is the biggest crowd I’ve ever played in front of.’ It was insane. The fan support for women’s basketball is definitely growing.”
Especially in West Lafayette.
“They all know who we are,” says Petree of the Boilermaker fans. “They come to the games. They show support. They take time to talk to us. It’s crazy. They buy our merch. I see some people wearing my shirt #11. It was unlike any other feeling to play in front of the crowds.”
Petree hopes to play in front of similar crowds in the NCAA tournament, but it’s not a guarantee just yet. Purdue’s loss on the road against a Minnesota team that’s now 12th in the conference to close out the regular season certainly didn’t help the resume.
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The Boilermakers will now face Wisconsin in the second round of the Big Ten tournament on Thursday; if they win, they’ll have the unenviable task of facing Iowa, fresh off its dramatic 86-85 victory over Indiana.
Regardless of what transpires in Minneapolis, Gearlds seemingly has Purdue moving in the right direction. She’s returned an identity to the program that felt a bit aimless in recent years. And in a few weeks, her players might get their first taste of March Madness, vaulting Purdue women’s basketball back to where it belongs.
“Obviously we have a long way to go,” Gearlds says. “But I feel like we’ve done a pretty good job of giving ourselves a chance. I’m just excited to watch it unfold for our group.”
Written by Eric Rynston-Lobel
Eric Rynston-Lobel has been a contributor to The Next since August 2022. He covered Northwestern women's basketball extensively in his four years as a student there for WNUR and now works as a sports reporter for the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire.