|"Wait, I thought they fired Weber."|
No means no, Illini seniors!
They'll have one more shot to beat the Boilermakers in their college careers in February, but on this night, the Purdue Boilermakers looked like they grew up a bit and that perhaps the angst of the pre-con might have been worth it just a bit.
Purdue hung with the 11th-ranked Fighting Illini in the first half, shaking off some of Illinois' best punches and keeping the game close. DJ Byrd even had an open look at a transition three in the final seconds of the first half that would have given the Boilers a lead, but the 33-31 halftime score was still an improvement for a team that has struggled to compete with even moderate competition this season.
I might argue that Illinois was a bit of a soft 13-1, but a nearly top ten team is what its record says it is. Hey, until Big Ten play starts anyway, and then they turn back into Bruce Weber's team that lost 12 of 14 to conference foes to end last season.
We, like many of you, were a bit downtrodden about how this season had gone so far for our Boilers. However, one thing that we also pointed out at times was that this program was due for some serious bumps in the road and some youth. With youth and inexperience comes mistakes and growing pains. And those pains have showed this year. That said, we also felt like this is where you give Matt Painter the benefit of the doubt that he has earned and see what he can mold this very young squad into -- and how long it takes him to mold them. Whether this season turns into a pleasant surprise or not, tonight showed that, as Monty Python might say, they're not dead yet.
Speaking of those for whom reports of their demise have been greatly exaggerated, DJ Byrd rose from the ashes of a rocky start to do what we all need him to do -- be a senior leader. Perhaps DJ finally allowed himself to stop feeling the pressure to be Robbie Hummel or a big-time scorer or whatever. But tonight he began hitting clutch shots again, making the plays you need from a senior, and just illustrating to everyone else what kind of hustle is needed to win games in the Big Ten season. DJ had 15 points on 5/11 shooting, including 4/9 from three. He only got to the line once, but it was YOOOOGE, as it effectively sealed the win after a late score while being nearly tackled as the Illini tried in vain to keep him from making a bucket.
Of course, the play that made everyone fall in love with the Byrdman again was his hustling, sliding time out call with just over 20 seconds to go. Jacob Lawson -- who had just nearly been clotheslined by what should have been called an intentional or flagrant foul (and Bo Boroski was there, so you know...) -- missed both his free throws, and on the second one, DJ Byrd chased it towards the corner and, while sliding on both knees, grabbed it just as he slid to a stop, called timeout and then toppled out of bounds.
Let's just clear up something here about the naysayers on twitter and elsewhere claiming that wasn't a legit timeout -- it was. The ones they did away with were the nonsense ones where a guy is literally in the air flying out of bounds and calls timeout. This was not that. Watch it again if you need to. It may be only a partial second, but DJ grabs the ball, turns and calls time, all while teetering and then falling on his side. He was grounded and was not in the air. I won't argue with you that it was close -- but it was definitely one you could term a judgement call for the official and this time DJ got the benefit of the judgment. I'd say he deserved one.
Terone Johnson had himself really a player-of-the-game kind of night, with a career-high 25 points, plus 9 rebounds. Terone continues to be the go-to scoring guy and is turning more and more into the reliable, consistent fill-it-up guy. He reminds me a lot of E'Twaun in that sense that most of his scoring isn't all that memorable, but then you look at the scoresheet and there he is -- everywhere. Quiet confidence with a salty side. Yet another likable Boilermaker.
Jacob Lawson was the third Boiler in double-digits, with ten points in 22 minutes. He was 3/5 from the field, including a couple of rattling dunks, and 4/6 from the line, which would be good except he missed two critical ones that are only forgotten now because of DJ's manly play. Lawson also had seven rebounds and we at BS have always been fans of his -- good to see him not only starting, but getting serious minutes at crunch time.
I remember not long ago -- and on the JJ/E'Twaun teams -- how we would lament the Boilermakers' complete inability to rebound, despite some size and athleticism. Now here we are and one of Purdue's strengths is rebounding, as they're 21st in the nation, averaging over 40 boards a night. Tonight was no different, as they outrebounded the Illini, 38-31.
Tonight, the Boilers outrebounded their opponent, hung with them at the line (63% for Purdue, 64% for Illinois), and shot better than them from the field (41% to 36%). That's a formula I like. The Boilers also had only ten turnovers to Illinois' nine, but I will say it felt as though all ten of the Boilers' were in the final two minutes.
One more thought about winning these tough games -- good teams fight back and find ways to win and bad teams often find ways to fold down the stretch, as we've seen from Purdue earlier this season (and at times early last year). Winning these games takes more than just spurts of playing well and a few rebounds. The Boilers pushed their lead out to ten (61-51) with two and a half minutes to go and then the Illini responded with back to back threes to make it just a four point game. The Boilers had some sloppy play in there, including a couple of turnovers and a shot clock violation, but then they bore down and ground out a prototypical Matt Painter/Purdue Big Ten victory. I would love to see blowouts and not these kinds of nail-biters, but it's just rarely the way in this conference and for this team. For tonight anyway, it felt like our Boilers were back on track. Let's hope it continues.