More mature Gearlds leads Purdue to perfect start

Sometimes, a little attitude goes a long way.

Take Katie Gearlds, for example.

During chitchats with the Purdue star this summer, the conversations were punctuated with pauses. Gearlds was very hesitant, almost embarrassed, to acknowledge she's any good on the basketball court.

But last week, Gearlds had seemed to come to grips with her skills.

"Good things will happen if the ball is in my hands," Gearlds said during a phone interview. "If my shot is there, I'll take it."

Don't be fooled. It's confidence -- not arrogance -- that's flowing out of Gearlds, and with it has come great results. The 6-foot-1 senior guard/forward's stats -- which were already impressive -- are up across the board. Gearlds is averaging 20.6 points per game (up five from last year), 5.8 rebounds (up almost two per game) and 3.8 assists (a slight increase). The Preseason WNIT MVP is also shooting 51.4 percent from the field (up 8 percent) and 50 percent from 3-point range (up 13 percent). And she's 18-for-19 from the foul line.

Sure, Gearlds has only played six games this season, but so far, so good. Purdue tore through the Preseason WNIT en route to the championship trophy, beating then-No. 16 Baylor in the title game. The Boilermakers are 6-0, including two victories over ranked teams. They have won their games by an average of nearly 21 points, with only one victory by less than 10 points.

That Purdue's off to a great start isn't that surprising. Yes, the Boilers have a new coach in Sharon Versyp, but they return three starters, including Gearlds, an honorable mention All-American. According to Gearlds, "We're way ahead of where we were a year ago."

So is Gearlds, of course. The irony is that the coach who helped Gearlds make the biggest strides is now more than 1,000 miles away as Kristy Curry left in the offseason to take over Texas Tech.

Curry recruited Gearlds to West Lafayette, and from early on, the expectations were high for the Beech Grove, Ind. native. However, Gearld's career has been interrupted several times by injuries. She needed right ankle reconstruction in March 2005. Three months later, Gearlds underwent compartment syndrome release surgery in her left leg, and the procedure was done again -- on both legs this time -- in August 2006.

"It was a whirlwind of frustration with all those injuries, but going through them made me more mature and tougher," Gearlds said. "Kristy really worked with me on getting stronger there."

Gearlds describes herself as a "laid-back" person. But this season, she knows she needs to be more verbal and the "calming influence on the floor."

Gearlds -- who has the skills to play the 1, 2 or 3 positions -- said those roles wouldn't be possible if not for her mental maturation.

"I've grown most in the mental aspect of the game," said Gearlds, who drove to Lubbock in the offseason to see Curry and her family -- husband Kelly was a Boilermakers assistant and their daughters Kelsey and Kendall were a constant presence around the team. "In the past, if I missed a shot or turned the ball over or got scored on, I would get down. I wasn't really as mentally tough as I could be."

Still, for all of Gearld's growth, she knows she has a great supporting cast around her. She already has said numerous times that teammate junior forward Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton has the potential to be a Kodak All-American ("She dominates both ends of the floor, alters shots, has a great pull-up jumper and takes a lot of pressure off of me"), and that freshman FahKara Malone ("She's an amazing point guard who has really helped me run the team") and fellow senior Erin Lawless help create a very solid starting core. The key, Gearlds said, is for Purdue's three post players to stay out of foul trouble since they don't have a lot of depth there.

And away from the court, Gearlds still embraces that laid-back personality. She lives with her younger brother and fellow Purdue student, T.J., in a home in West Lafayette she purchased last year with money she inherited following her grandfather's death.

Party house? No way.

"It's calm, never crazy, lights out by 10 every night," she said.

Figures. "Lights out" is just the way Gearlds is playing.

Nancy Lieberman, an ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. Contact her at www.nancylieberman.com.