WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. (AP)—Purdue guard Brittany Rayburn still remembers most of the ugly details from her first college start.
There was the injury that forced the freshman into the lineup, the mistakes she made playing point guard and, of course, hearing her coach recount every miscue at full volume.
The truth is Rayburn was never meant to be a point guard, and the on-the-job training she got that night in Bloomington, Ind., eventually helped her become one of the best shooters in Purdue women’s basketball history.
“I used it as a motivating factor,” she said Sunday. “It told me `Coach wants you to be the best’ and if that takes screaming, that’s what it takes.”
Rayburn and five other Purdue seniors will play their final home game Monday night against fifth-seeded South Carolina in the NCAA women’s tournament. The winner heads to Fresno, Calif., for next weekend’s matchup against top-seeded Stanford or eighth-seeded West Virginia, who play Monday night in Norfolk, Va.
Without Rayburn, the fourth-seeded Boilermakers (25-8) might not even be here—a win away from returning to the regional semifinals.
Yes, she took some early lumps, but the 6-foot shooting guard from nearby Attica also proved she could withstand a torrent of criticism and use it to become a better all-around player.
Her forte, of course, is scoring. Rayburn has 1,782 points, sixth most in school history, and is second all-time on the school’s 3-point list (201). If she can score at least 10 points against the Gamecocks’ stingy defense, Rayburn will tie Lyndsay Wisdom-Hylton for No. 6 on the Boilermakers career list of double-figure games (93), too.
It won’t be easy against a South Carolina defense that allows 50.4 points per game.
But Rayburn didn’t get here by taking the path of least resistance. With only one trip to the round of 16 and no Final Four appearances, she isn’t ready to end her college career in West Lafayette. She still dreams of making the trip to Denver in two weeks.
“It would be awesome,” Rayburn said. “As a senior, you want to play the best basketball you can. Getting to the Elite Eight a couple of years ago was an unbelievable experience, and I can guarantee you all six of the seniors on this team want to do that again and take it a step farther.”
The Gamecocks (24-9) have similar plans after producing their best season in a decade.
Saturday’s first-round blowout, 80-48 over 12th-seeded Eastern Michigan, has put South Carolina on the verge of its first regional semifinal appearance since 2002. A win over Purdue also would match the Gamecocks’ highest victory total since they joined the SEC in 1991-92.
The Boilermakers’ 83-68 first-round win over South Dakota State certainly provided some intriguing fodder for the Gamecocks, too. Rayburn, Purdue’s top scorer at 14.8, looked content to play a supporting role to the hot-handed Courtney Moses, who made nine 3s and broke the NCAA tourney record.
“Hmm,” coach Dawn Staley said, drawing laughter after being asked about Moses’ shooting spree. “I think any time you break NCAA records of any sort, you know, it’s an eye-opener.”
Still, South Carolina understands Rayburn is the key to stopping Purdue’s offense, which is why the coaches have assigned their top defender, La’Keisha Sutton, to shadow Rayburn.
Sutton has a knack for shutting down big scorers, as she did Saturday. Tavelyn James, the nation’s No. 2 scorer, finished with 11 points—13 fewer than her average.
“She (Rayburn) is definitely their go-to player and a playmaker who is very skilled,” Sutton said. “She can get her own shot. She’s multi-dimensional, so we’re very aware of her. She’s their best player. Tomorrow night, we can’t let her score as much as she’s used to.”
Rayburn’s OK with that, too, as long as the Boilermakers win.
And it’s that kind of selfless leadership that coach has converted Rayburn’s biggest critic, coach Sharon Versyp, into one of her strongest supporters.
“Everybody knew that Brittany was a scorer. But as she’s grown though her career, it’s understanding the offenses, playing one through four, being a better defender, taking charges, anticipating defensively,” Versyp said. “Her leadership skills have obviously developed this senior year all the way through.”