We've seen this recipe before: a slow start and a near collapse for a finale, but the Boilers hold on for a 63-58 come from behind victory against the Fighting Illini to notch their 12th win in conference play and 20th of the year to put them in position to dance in March and get a double bye in Chicago.
Senior Night. NCAA tournament bid. Double bye in the conference tournament. Two game losing streak. Lost to Illinois earlier in the year. Take your pick of reasons, but the Boilers played host to the Fighting Illini with plenty of reasons to come out fighting themselves.Things looked good for them very early on as their first possession lead to a post touch for Hammons and a hook shot.
Then the next 8 minutes and 20 seconds happened where Purdue found itself not scoring another basket until Dakota Mathias's three made it 15-5 with 11:20 remaining in a sloppy first half. While the Boilers struggled, yet again, to solve the Illini's zone, Rayvonte Rice was dropping step back threes and throwing down alley-oop dunks on his way to 14 first half points.
With all the pressure of a must-win game to get into the tourney, it took a freshman to get the Boilers going on Senior night. PJ Thompson, the smallest man on the court, came up huge late in the first half with some inspired defense that culminated in a back court steal and contested layup to bring the Boiler's deficit to single digits. His second steal, sandwiched between some much needed scoring from Hammons, was the torch reaching into the fire that the Boilers carried over to the second half where a free throw from another Freshman, Vince Edwards, would tie up the game at 26-26.
In a game where the Boilers often looked confused and out of control, it was the freshman that routinely came up with the big 50-50 ball or shot to calm the play on the court and spark the Mackey crowd. Combined, the freshman(Thompson, Edwards, Mathias, and Haas) accounted for 13 rebounds, 7 assists, 5 steals, and 13 points. A. J. Hammons would lead the Boilers in scoring with 16, and the lone senior playing meaningful minutes this year would foul out with 11 points and two rebounds, assists, and steals.
Look, it wasn't pretty. It hasn't been a lot of the year, but we did what we needed to do. We struggled against the zone, again. We struggled against the press, again. We failed to get Hammons and Haas the ball consistently, again. We struggled shooting, again. We persevered, again.
The best free throw shooting team in the nation helped us out by making under 70% of their free throws, and by being unable to knock down outside shots, but once PJ got us into a rhythm and frenzy, we played tough, Boilermaker basketball. We forced turnovers, and you could argue that a lot of the shots going in for Rice were just ridiculous, super-human efforts against pretty solid defense.
But we accomplished what we needed to accomplish and we're where no one thought we would be when this year started. We're going dancing, and Bo Ryan willing, we'll take a double bye into the Big Ten Tournament.