There are many who think that the Palesta is haunted. Haunted by basketball players who never left. Who decided that the great unknown was not for them and that instead they wanted to stay and play. It makes sense. The arena has been around since 1927 so there’s been a lot of folks who have played here who are no longer with us.
Purdue fans are haunted, of course, by their last trip to Philadelphia. You all know the story so I won’t rehash it here. St. Peter’s and Purdue for a trip to the Elite 8 on the line against a team that Purdue had already beaten that season. Heartbreak instead. As Purdue travelled to Philly for this game, hell as I travelled to Philly for this game, those memories were fresh. They became especially fresh as I picked up my old podcast partner Casey at his hotel to carpool to the game. It’s a different arena sure but the vibes felt the same. A game that most expected Purdue to win but against a hostile crowd and a scrappy underdog. When Jalen Pickett hit a three and was fouled and then converted the free throw for the four point play to put Penn State up 26-21 the deja vu truly started to feel uncomfortable.
Purdue started this game about as well as you could hope on offense. Edey hit some easy buckets, Braden Smith hit an open three, and Caleb Furst backed down his man for an easy bucket. You can’t ask for much better than that. But then, they stalled out. It’s been the hallmark of their recent struggles. I use the term struggles here relatively as they’ve only lost one game. After hitting their first two threes to start the game Purdue went into halftime shooting 3-10 from deep. That’s emblematic of the problem they’ve had of late.
It felt that way for most of the first half with Purdue running the same playbook we’ve seen from them lately. An inability to shoot from deep, and allowing their opponent to make clutch shots from deep. For the first half that man was Jalen Pickett. He was on fire. In the first half alone he was 7-11 from the field including 3-3 from three (he made just 3 threes in 5 games during the entire month of December). Purdue just couldn’t stop him. He finished with 18 first half points.
If it weren’t for Braden Smith and Zach Edey it looked like things might have gotten out of control. Thankfully though Purdue has the greatest player in the country down low and Penn State didn’t have an answer for him. He was yet again, THE MAN on the court. He finished the game with 30 points and 13 rebounds in 36 minutes. He continues to answer the call each and every time. Can he play more minutes and still be effective? You’re darn right he can.
Not to worry though, the second half was coming.
John Wooden Memorial Player of the Game (JWMPOTG): I know it’s so easy to give this award to Zach Edey every game but to me it’s gotta be Braden Smith. The freshman played a second half that many can only dream of. He found every open man and grabbed every loose ball. This was one of those “I can’t believe he is a freshman” games. Not only did he make all the passes he also hit a three with just over a minute to go, and was fouled despite it not being called, to truly ice the game and put Purdue up 76-63. He finished the game with 15 points, 7 assists, and 6 rebounds.
One minute and 34 seconds. That’s all the time Purdue needed in the second half to not only take back the lead but to assert their dominance. Fletcher Loyer hit two threes and another bucket to throw in eight points. Zach Edey had a block and a dunk. Ethan Morton forced a turnover. It was classic Purdue basketball and in an arena like this it was absolutely beautiful. Penn State wouldn’t score until 16:00 left in the second half. By that point though the momentum had shifted and Purdue was playing like Purdue. Bodies were all over the floor, and everything was over but the final margin. Sure, Penn State fought back and got it a bit closer, but the writing was on the wall every time Braden Smith got the ball into Zach Edey for a bucket down low or Loyer for yet another clutch three. You could see it on the defensive end as everyone from Brandon Newman to Braden Smith to Ethan Morton looked more active and got their hands on the ball.
As the second half progressed into a 19-5 run the team looked better than they had all game. Purdue played smothering defense in the second half. So much so that after allowing 37 points in the first half Purdue had allowed just 9 in the first 10:01 of the second half and only 26 for the entire 20 minutes.
This is the Purdue we saw out in Portland. This is the team Purdue fans have come to expect every game after that showing. For good or ill the expectations were reset after Portland and Purdue hadn’t really been living up to them.
With the game winding down and Purdue firmly in control the echos of Boiler Up! could be heard as if they were trying to leave their own imprint on their Palestra. Their own ghost of sorts. As a Braden Smith three dropped with 1:12 left to finish the scoring it felt like the team was truly back to who they showed they could be in Portland. They had exorcised the demons of Philadelphia and shaken off the rust of the previous month. It was a commanding victory for the Boilermakers. As they headed back home there would be no ghosts following them this time.