The Purdue Boilermakers met the Illinois Fighting Illini in West Lafayette Saturday. Here's what went down and what we can take away. Illinois came out of the gates running, opening on a 15-2 run to start the game. A strong first half by Rayvonte Rice allowed Illinois to open up a large lead with four minutes left before the break. However, Purdue then came to life. A strip steal by P.J. Thompson brought Mackey Arena into a frenzy and allowed the Boilermakers to cut the deficit to 26-21 heading into the tunnel. Purdue then blew the doors open.
Coming out for the second half, they caught fire, much in part due to the shooting of Raphael Davis who finished with 18 points. A.J. Hammons added 16 of his own, dominating Nnanna Egwu and Austin Colbert in the post. By the time Illinois tried to make their run with five minutes left, the Boilermakers had build an 11 point lead and showed no signs of turning back. Purdue celebrated Senior Night with a 63-58 victory, finishing the season 20-11 overall and 12-6 in the Big Ten.
What we learned
Purdue Is Poised For NCAA Tournament
Down 13 points in the first half, the Boilermakers couldn’t get anything to fall. After scoring the first bucket of the game, it took them eight minutes to break their scoring drought. However, Purdue didn't let it phase them. Instead of letting Illinois run away with the game, the Boilers fought back, much in part due to the toughness of P.J. Thompson. After the game, Illinois head coach John Groce called Thompson a "major difference maker" after he was able to get a steal from Jaylon Tate. He finished with 7 points and 3 steals in just 14 minutes of play. Davis was also a big part in making sure the Boilermakers fought back. Logging a team high 38 minutes, the guard also hit two big three-pointers to put the Illini out of reach down the stretch. He will be an important part of Matt Painter’s game plan as they head into the NCAA tournament. Don’t count Purdue out, these boys know how to play under duress.
Illinois Is In A Desperate Situation
This was a game the Illini could not afford to lose. Coming into Saturday as one of the "Next Four Out", John Groce and company were hoping to add a huge resume boosting win. Unfortunately for them, the outcome was less than desirable. They finish 19-12 overall and 9-9 in the Big Ten. Following the loss, Groce called out some of his players, claiming that "[Rayvonte] Rice and [Nnanna] Egwu came to play, but the other guys didn’t". While Rice finished with 25 points, it wasn’t enough for a team plagued by scoring distribution. Malcolm Hill added 14, but no other Illini scored more than 6. Most notably perhaps, Kendrick Nunn scored just 5 points on 2-12 shooting. Nunn has struggled since the return of Rayvonte Rice and will need to play well in the Big Ten Tournament if the Illini are to go anywhere. His three-point shooting is what allowed the Illini to crawl themselves back into tournament contention.
Bracketology Is Working Itself Out
With this win, Purdue essentially secures it’s spot in March Madness. Depending on how they fare in the Big Ten Tournament, the Boilermakers could be seeded anywhere from an #11 seed on up. They could seriously benefit from picking up a victory or two in Chicago this coming week. On the other hand, Illinois is close to being eliminated from contention. While a win may have given them the inside lane for the tourney, they will now need to beat both Michigan and Wisconsin to have a shot at consideration. While anything is possible, the outlook looks grim for a team that hasn’t missed back-to-back NCAA tournaments since 1991-1992.
Watch out for the Boilermakers, they’re dangerous. Chippy and physical play makes them a formidable opponent for anybody in the Big Ten, and they’re up for the competition. Matt Painter has proven that he can have his guys ready to compete on any given night and Hammons is as big a force down low as anybody in the conference. It should be a very interesting close to the end of the season for both of these programs.