By CLIFF BRUNT
AP Sports Writer
WEST LAFAYETTE -- Purdue's season was moving downhill quickly before a win over Iona gave the Boilermakers a boost heading into Big Ten play.
Purdue had lost three in a row before an 82-65 win over Iona on Dec. 13 provided an example of what the Boilermakers learned from the losses to Maryland, Notre Dame and Valparaiso which cost them a spot in the Top 25.
Purdue coach Sharon Versyp said her team wasn't good and the pressure was off after the loss to unranked Valparaiso. Now, she's excited heading into Monday's game at Illinois.
"I think the pieces are starting to come together," she said.
But the Boilermakers (6-4) haven't completely forgotten the upset loss at Valparaiso.
"You watch the fans stand up, and that's in your gut," Versyp said. "That's our vision. Them celebrating and us standing there knowing that we shouldn't have been in that position."
Freshman guard Brittany Rayburn said the performance against Iona was what the Boilermakers needed. Purdue made 11 3-pointers against the Gaels.
"I felt like we're starting to get a hold of each other as a team," Rayburn said. "Earlier in the year, I felt we played a lot as individuals, and we watched the highlights of when we were playing good and having fun. I think that helped our team individually and as a whole."
But all is not well for the Boilermakers.
"I think we've got to play better defense," Versyp said. "I think we've got to communicate a little better. I think we're getting where we need to be, but we still need more bench play."
A closer look shows why it might have been difficult for the Boilermakers to mesh into a fluid unit. Two key players, Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton and Jodi Howell, missed last season with injuries. They struggled at times while trying to fit in with a team that reached the second round of the NCAA tournament without them.
Wisdom-Hylton tore her ACL while playing for the USA under-21 national team that won gold at the 2007 FIBA World Championships in Moscow. She had surgery and redshirted last season after averaging 14.8 points and 8.2 rebounds as a junior. This season, she averages 13.7 points and nine rebounds while shooting 50 percent from the field.
Wisdom-Hylton has focused less on her considerable athletic ability and more on her increasing knowledge of the game.
"I think she's worked on her game more and understands the game of basketball more," Versyp said. "Our offense does go through her. She understands the game, she understands matchups."
Howell had shoulder surgery last year and redshirted. This season, she averages seven points and shoots 51 percent from the 3-point line.
Howell gets perimeter help from Rayburn, the freshman and 2008 high school Miss Basketball in Indiana. Rayburn averages 10.3 points per game and is tied with Howell for the team lead in 3-pointers made.
Rayburn and Howell are expected to take pressure off Purdue's talented posts.
"These two have to, and they have to take responsibility when they don't," Versyp said.
Wisdom-Hylton's primary help comes from Danielle Campbell, a third-team All-Big Ten pick last year. The 6-foot-4 center averages 7.9 points and 8.3 rebounds a game.
Lakisha Freeman adds the ability to create shots. The senior ranks second on the team with 10.6 points per game after averaging 11.9 last year.
In the Iona game, point guard FahKara Malone worked her way out of a slump when she focused on distributing instead of shooting. She had nine assists and one turnover against the Gaels.
"I think her first three games, she was scoring for us and doing a lot of things," Versyp said. "I think she was pressing too hard and trying to do too much and needed to realize that we have a lot of weapons and she needs to distribute the ball and be that true playmaker."
Malone doesn't have to score because she's surrounded by offensive talent. The key remains whether Purdue will make shots in the big games.
"I think we've always been a defensive team at Purdue, but we have to find a way to put the ball in the basket. When you make shots, you're never tired. Whether we're a good team or a great team depends on our shooting."