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Despite A Lackluster First Half, Purdue Men Defeat Illinois To Win #20

Stan Jastrzebski

Knowing the importance of winning its final regular season game against Illinois Sunday, Purdue's men's basketball team played perhaps its worst opening 15 minutes of any game this year.

With the Illini's best player, Rayvonte Rice, scoring seemingly at will against the man-to-man defense played by Dakota Mathias, the visitors built a 13-point lead and held the Boilermakers to just ten points through the first 15 minutes.

But changes made in the last five minutes of the half turned the game around.

Matt Painter assigned his best defender, Rapheal Davis, to shadow Rice and the Boilermakers began to get back into the game by making outside shots. Purdue scored 11 points to close the first half and trailed by an improbably small margin of five at the break.

In the second half, the Illini felt the same cold shoulder from the south basket that the home team had in the first stanza and watched Purdue not just erase the remainder of what once was that 13-point advantage, but build a 13-point cushion of its own.

A.J. Hammons (16 points, 10 rebounds) registered a double-double for Purdue and Davis led the team with 18 points, all while holding Rayvonte Rice to 11 points in the second half.

The going was made easier for Purdue by a massive shooting drought for the Illini, starting near the end of the first half. Over an 18-minute stretch, Illinois made just 3-of-28 shots (11-percent). The below average shooting also extended to the free throw line, where the Illini came in as the nation's best team, collectively shooting about 80-percent. Purdue converted 21 of its 26 shots (81-percent), to Illinois' 18 of 26 (69-percent).

But despite having the game seemingly in hand with 90 seconds to go, a series of mistakes served notice that this is is a Boilermaker team that still hasn't learned how to close out a game. Multiple turnovers -- including on a half-court pass that would have led to an easy layup or dunk if either Hammons or guard P.J. Thompson -- who'd played well while spelling Jon Octeus -- had caught it instead of bobbling it, let the Illini close a 12-point gap to five before the final horn sounded.

Purdue finishes 12-6 in conference play, but still needs help to get a pair of byes in the Big Ten tournament, which begins Wednesday. They'll earn the #4 seed if Wisconsin defeats Ohio State Sunday. If the Buckeyes win and also go 12-6 in Big Ten play, they hold the tiebreaker over the Boilers and would get the #4 seed, with Purdue earning the #5 seed.

With the win, Matt Painter's teams have now won at least 20 games in seven of his ten years as coach.