Just for the record, Purdue is 2-0 when I sit in the alumni Paint Crew.
While screaming myself hoarse, giving myself a headache from yelling so much, massaging the ego of Ted Valentine from 25 feet away, and working up a full body sweat with my best college student impression likely has very little effect on the outcome of the game, you can't beat the atmosphere. I forgot how much fun it was sitting that close to the action and acting like I am 10 years younger.
What did help was that Mackey Arena became Mackey Arena for the first time all season, and from my vantage you could see the Illinois players begin to tighten up. The ultimate example was E'Twaun's 38 Special two years ago, when Jared Sullinger and Ohio State wilted in the loudest atmosphere I have ever seen. Last night wasn't that good, but when Jacob Lawson flushed home a vintage thunderdunk after a Terone Johnson steal with 17:30 left to tie the game at 35-35 he also found the long lost plug that put Mackey back into its socket.
That metaphorical plug almost fell out again. Almost three minutes later Tracy Abrams hit a big three-pointer as the shot clock expired and Illinois followed with an Abrams layup and a three from Tyler Griffey. That made it 45-39 Illinois going into the under 12 timeout and the game was in serious danger of getting away.
What followed was the biggest stretch of growth this young team has had all season. TJ made a layup. D.J. Byrd hit a three. After another Abrams basket A.J. Hammons got his only two of the night. The biggest moment came with 7:59 left when D.J. hit a huge three of the "No, No, NO!.... YES!" variety to put Purdue in front for good at 49.47. After the TV timeout he added another three, this time one that bounced high off the rim and found its way straight down. It was that moment that I knew something had finally turned in Purdue's favor.
After Griffey's three until Brandon Paul scored on a driving layup with 3:15 left Purdue outscored the Fighting Illini 20-4. Illinois hit one field field goal in a roughly nine minute stretch. In that stretch Purdue got baskets from Byrd, TJ, Ronnie Johnson, and Hammons. Lawson and Travis Carroll were also involved with key rebounds. For the first time this season, our young Boilers came together and finally, finally played as one. The formula for Purdue success became clear as to what needs to happen to win these games:
- Terone Johnson has to be a productive scorer - This means he has to be a threat from three (he hit one), slash to the basket, and hit his free throws. He also needs to be an active rebounder. He did that to the tune of a career high 25 points.
- D.J. Byrd has to be the hustler, senior leader, and three-point threat - D.J. Byrd has not been good in his career in non-conference play, but the D.J. of Big Ten play came back last night. He doesn't need to be our leading scorer, but he has to hit a handful of threes and in general make the hustle plays like his rebound/timeout that sealed the game.
- A third player must step up with about 10 points - Last night it was Lawson with a solid 10-7 night. Other nights it will be Hammons, who was limited to two points with foul trouble. Rapheal Davis will likely be this guy some nights, or Anthony Johnson, or Ronnie Johnson.
- Purdue has to play nasty team defense - This is a pre-requisite of all Purdue teams. Purdue had seven blocked shots total last night and I believe six key turnovers in the critical 20-4 run.
- Purdue must continue to rebound extremely well - You saw it through the box score. Hammons had 7. Lawson had 7. TJ had 9. Donnie Hale had an underrated four rebounds in 12 minutes and added a putback on one of them. Purdue had 12 offensive rebounds and at least 10 huge second chance points. We simply do not shoot the basketball well enough to not have offensive rebounding be a priority. Even last night Purdue was only 41% from the field.
This is only one game. The only long-lasting effect it will have is that the remainder of the Big Ten now knows that the team with the worst record in non-conference play still has a nasty home court that will not be easy to win at. There are still four top 10 monsters coming to West Lafayette, but at least we now know they won't have an easy time winning at Purdue.
For one night, however, Purdue basketball was fun again. We watched a team grow up exponentially in a nine minute stretch against the No. 11 team in the country. If they continue to play at that level some very pleasant surprises can happen. I still think Purdue needs to go 11-7 in the Big Ten bare minimum with probably two wins in Chicago to have any chance at making the NCAA Tournament, but at least last night's effort made you think it is possible, however unlikely.
You can dream though. You can look at the schedule and see a somewhat struggling Michigan State team, an Ohio State team that might be a little overrated and has to come to Mackey, and then the consensus two worst teams in the league in Penn State and Nebraska. Could Purdue be 12-6 and 5-0 in Big Ten play headed to Ann Arbor on January 24? Unlikely, but why not dream just a little bit? It at least seems slightly possible, however unlikely.
That's what one night of growth and fun basketball does. It makes everyone feel a whole lot better. Now we have at least three days where we can say the following:
Purdue is in first place in the Big Ten.