Purdue entered as a 16.5 point underdog, but from the very beginning we saw what we have wanted to see from this Purdue team for some time. They were playing one of the best teams in the country on their home floor and stood toe-to-toe with them for 40 minutes. While it wasn't enough in the end because of two big factors, it was a huge departure from the three-game stretch just before Christmas where the Boilers lost three straight and gave up over 80 points in each game.
The fight was back. The grit was back. We were playing a Wisconsin team that had been thoroughly dominating teams and dragged them down into an old school Big Ten slugfest. We took our two bigs and had them ugly it up a bit in the post. Jon Octeus added some great drives to the basket and Purdue was able to lead for most of the first half.
Even though Wisconsin controlled most of the second half Purdue refused to go away. They would pull ahead by six and Purdue would claw back. With 6:50 left A.J. Hammons had a mismatch and scored in the paint, tying the game at 45-45. Despite everything, Purdue had a chance with six and a half minutes left to upset the No. 4 team in the country. That's not a position it would have been in a few weeks ago.
In the end, two things made a huge difference. First, Wisconsin had a 12-24 advantage in fouls, including a questionable flagrant on Isaac Haas that gave them four points in a close game and another flop by Frank Kaminsky that even Seth Davis thought was egregious. That led to a 31-7 advantage at the free throw line. Second, The foul trouble for Kendall Stephens meant Purdue had no perimeter threat. Octeus and Rapheal Davis have occasionally knocked down threes, but they aren't the threat that Stephens is.
With Stephens out, it was Haas/Hammons inside or Octeus on the drive. From the tie Wisconsin went on a 9-2 run assisted by six free throws that was just enough. Isaac Haas missed a key front end of a one-and-one, Octeus had a turnover, and A.J. had a turnover off of an offensive rebound. Stephens was able to come back in and hit a 15-footer with 2:30 left, but Traevon Jackson had a huge clutch basket as the shot clock ran down.
Purdue had one more chance after a Hammons dunk when Jackson missed a shot with 52 seconds left, but Stephens forced an off balance shot against good defense down 56-51 and it was over except for free throws.
This was refreshing to see because Purdue continued to play with toughness and grit that it lacked against Vanderbilt, Notre Dame, North Florida, and Gardner-Webb. You could also say that it lacked that grit against Kansas State in Maui. We played tough, smart basketball, didn't force things, and we were able to push a team that only Duke has been able to do anything against.
While I am tired of moral victories, this is about as textbook as they come. The thing about moral victories is that they mean absolutely nothing unless you learn something from them and turn them into real victories. That is what this team needs to do starting Saturday afternoon against a very good Maryland team when they come to Mackey. We have a lot of work to do if we're going to get the 10 more wins needed to erase the North Florida and Gardner-Webb losses to make the NCAA Tournament, but there is no doubt in my mind that those wins can come as long as we see this effort continued. All we need is to have more consistency from Vince Edwards (though he had a huge three go halfway down that would have greatly changed things) and we have to keep Kendall on the floor more.
Players like Dakota Mathias and P.J. Thompson are growing, but this is still their third Big Ten game and first Big Ten road game. Bryson Scott was MIA again, but he'll be back. We're past the worst road game on the schedule and did surprisingly well. Let's keep the effort level right here and see what happens.
We can definitely beat Maryland on Saturday.