WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Need evidence that life on the road in the Big Ten is tough?
The environment inside Mackey Arena is typically among the toughest for visitors in the league. But with students from the raucous Paint Crew on winter break, nearly 5,000 empty seats and a healthy Illinois contingent, the six-loss Boilermakers still managed to leave Keady Court with a 68-61 win against No. 11 Illinois on Wednesday.
This was a Purdue team that scored 44 points in a loss to the same Eastern Michigan team that got beat by 52 points at Kentucky on Wednesday.
The mantra for Illinois this season has been “toughness and togetherness.” The toughness part took a serious blow against the Boilermakers (7-6, 1-0 Big Ten).
“They made more toughness plays at the end of the game,” first-year Illinois coach John Groce said.
“That’s something we’ve got to get better at,” Illinois guard Tracy Abrams said.
Entering the game, Groce raved about Purdue’s D.J. Byrd (15 points), saying the senior was the Boilermakers’ X-factor because of his toughness and how hard he plays the game. The 6-foot-5 swingman made the play of the game late for the Boilers, calling timeout while sliding out of bounds on his knees after coming up with an offensive rebound off a missed free throw with Purdue clinging to a two-point lead with 21 seconds remaining.
“A couple of plays Byrd made late in the game, I thought were winning plays, I thought they were toughness plays. He can do that,” Groce said. “I really respect him a lot. Enjoyed watching him on film. I think he’s a tough son of a gun and he made plays at the end of the game.”
Though the Illini missed nine straight three-pointers during a 10-minute stretch in the second half, Groce wasn’t as concerned with that end of the floor as he was with the defense.
Brandon Paul managed 15 points, Joseph Bertrand added 14 off the bench and Big Ten Player of the Week Tracy Abrams added 12 for the Illini, who went 10 for 26 from long range.
Purdue’s Terone Johnson grabbed nine rebounds and scored a career-high 25 points. That’s what had the Illinois coach upset afterward.
“What I’m disappointed in is in the guts of the game (second half), 46 percent Purdue shot, 50 percent from three, we let Byrd get loose for threes, couldn’t keep Johnson from the paint, they got us on the glass and they made a couple hustle plays,” Groce said. “Credit them, they made all those plays.”
The Illini have to put Wednesday’s setback behind them in a hurry. No. 8 Ohio State comes calling Saturday then ninth-ranked Minnesota after that.
“It’s a tough conference, one game at a time,” Abrams said. “Everyone knows it’s one of the toughest conferences in the country. Just got to keep our heads up.”