It is never easy to win in the Big Ten, but in most years there are easier games. Rutgers was a laughingstock until recently. Northwestern has had some truly atrocious teams in the past. Minnesota, Indiana, Nebraska, Illinois, and Penn State have had some bad years in the past decade or two where they have been easy outs. This year is one of the most brutal Big Ten seasons in a long time. In the current NET rankings 11 of the league’s 14 teams were in the top 50, and Indiana was just outside at 51. Only Northwestern and Nebraska were well outside, and Purdue already has a loss to Nebraska.
Facing such difficult slate, especially with three of the following four games on the road, Purdue was in a precarious position last night. The most important thing to do in conference play is to defend home court, and over the last five season Purdue has done that fiercely. It only has four conference losses in Mackey Arena in the last six seasons, so a loss to the Golden Gophers would have been a tough blow. The four losses were not easy, either:
January 15, 2015 vs. Maryland – The Terps got a solid 69-60 win in Mackey.
January 2, 2016 vs. Iowa – Purdue fell completely apart in the second half and blew a 20 point lead.
January 1, 2017 vs. Minnesota – Nate Mason had an incredible individual effort to lead the Golden Gophers to a win in overtime.
February 7, 2018 vs. Ohio State – All I can say is we were a single rebound away.
Since January 1, 2015 Purdue has lost only six times period in Mackey Arena. That is an incredible run of success, especially when three of those (Iowa, Ohio State, and Texas) were of the “We should have won that damn game” variety.
In recent years, however, Purdue has faced similar moments to last night. Last season Purdue had big overtime wins at Wisconsin and Penn State in similar fashion and they propelled us to the Big Ten title. In 2017 it was narrow wins at Ohio State and Maryland that led to a Big Ten title.
I don’t know how the rest of this season will go. Purdue could still struggle against a very tough conference slate. It could hold its own and make the tournament comfortably as a 6-10 seed. It could also use last night as a springboard into something more because of the way it fought off adversity. This was a game where if Purdue lost it could have easily started a lengthy losing streak that ended the year in disappointing fashion. With three of the next four on the road and the one home game in those four being against the preseason No. 1 team nothing is guaranteed, but with 2:30 left last night it was looking most dire as Minnesota was rated as the “most likely win” of this five game stretch.
At that point the Golden Gophers led 62-57 and had the basketball after an Eric Hunter Jr. miss. It was looking like another type of loss we have seen too much of again. Purdue was about to lose a close game because of offensive lulls and giving up too many offensive rebounds. Marcus Carr was looking unstoppable, too.
Purdue got a stop when Carr missed a three and Matt Haarms got the rebound. Haarms then got loose for a dunk to cut the lead to three, but Purdue still needed to play defense. It was able to get a pair of defensive stops, the most important coming with a minute left when Nojel Eastern picked Carr’s pocket. It still could not convert on either possession as Aaron Wheeler and Sasha Stefanovic each missed threes. Minnesota still led by three with the basketball and 30 seconds left when Trevion Williams forced a steal that led to a scramble situation. Hunter missed a challenged layup on a drive, but a hustling Williams got the offensive rebound and found Sasha on the wing with 15 seconds left. Sasha just barely got off the three where Jarvis Omersa barely missed swatting it, but it found nothing but net and sent Mackey Arena into a frenzy.
It was a potential season-saving stretch, because a loss last night could easily become a 5-game (or longer) losing streak. It reminded me of so many big moments over the last few seasons like Kendall Stephens tying a game in State College late, or Carsen Edwards doing the same last year, or P.J. Thompson hitting a clutch three in College Park in 2017.
That 2:30 was an incredible stretch for Purdue. It was in roughly the same position against Texas and Florida State, but failed both times. The measure of a team is tested in such moments and last night Purdue got better and multiple players did what they needed to do. Eastern made some huge defensive plays. Trevion had some big rebounds and a steal. Haarms was smart on ends and made plays to take advantage of Daniel Oturu in foul trouble. Finally, Sasha was able to make the big shot when Purdue has been looking for “the guy to make the big shot”.
It would be easy to say that Purdue needed just that moment of response and it rolled afterwards. Instead, it was tested again in both overtimes. Minnesota refused to go away and Purdue continued to go out and truly earn this win. Oturu hit a step back jumper with 40 seconds left in the first overtime to once again take the lead. Purdue needed to make a play, but instead turned the ball over with 19 seconds left.
The game was once again in the balance and Purdue needed to play the foul game, but Jahaad Proctor knocked the ball loose from Carr and Hunter got it. He missed the layup, but Trevion got the rebound and was fouled with 8 seconds left. He missed the first and barely rolled in the second, but the game was tied. For a sub-50% free throw shooter at the line in a crucial stretch it was a gigantic make, as all he nerves were right there when he missed the first.
From here, Purdue honestly got lucky. Minnesota had two very good looks inside the last four seconds as Carr missed on a drive and Oturu had a great look on the putback, but missed. It was like the basketball gods repaid us for all the easy ones we have missed this year.
Even after a 6-0 Purdue run in a 70 second span of the second overtime put us in front 75-69 it wasn’t easy. Minnesota got their own 6-0 to tie it and even could have retaken the lead had Oturu not missed the free throw on an and-1. That’s when Sasha did it again. His three with 1:11 left gave Purdue the lead for good at 78-75. Trevion then got a big rebound and knocked down both free throws for some breathing room with 40 seconds left to basically seal it.
I called this article “Sasha saves the season” because he hit the two biggest shots with those threes and he has been on a tear of late. It was truly a team effort though. Trevion, Hunter, Proctor, Eastern, and Haarms all made huge plays down the stretch. As I said earlier, this year’s Big Ten is so difficult that not even the tournament is guaranteed, but this win is the type that can build a ton of confidence going forward. As we have seen in the last few seasons, these types of wins can pay huge dividends.
In all those cases Purdue stole a win it probably did not deserve and it pushed this team to something greater. When Sasha’s three found the bottom of the net near the end of regulation Purdue went from dead in the water to barely alive, and it made the most of its second chance over the next 10 minutes. If the Boilers have a similar result this year as 2017 and 2019, it will look back at that moment as the pivotal moment.