CHAMPAIGN — When Illinois watched film from its Sunday win at Minnesota, coach John Groce announced that Sam McLaurin graded out on the defensive end higher than any player had in his six years as a head coach.
McLaurin’s teammates applauded him after the announcement.
Wednesday, during Illinois’ 79-59 win against Purdue at the Assembly Hall, the Illini fans got in on the action, too, giving the forward a rousing ovation when he checked out of the game.
The fifth-year transfer from Coastal Carolina netted a season-high eight points — all in the first half — but it was more than the numbers on the stat sheet that drew appreciation from the fans.
McLaurin screened, he defended Purdue’s blossoming big man A.J. Hammons and was active on the offensive glass. It’s what he’s been doing all year, but folks are starting to take notice now that the wins are piling up.
“He was active, he’s so good defensively,” Groce said. “The stat sheet doesn’t even come close to telling the story. He makes winning plays; Sam’s a winner.”
“Defense on (A.J.) Hammonds (10 points), keeping balls alive, offensive boards, going (to the glass) every time, some of the little things Sam does to help our team,” Tyler Griffey said.
When Purdue (12-13, 5-7 Big Ten) beat Illinois in West Lafayette on Jan. 2, Groce thought his team got out-toughed. Wednesday was a different story.
Joseph Bertrand followed McLaurin’s lead. The fourth-year junior grabbed a career-high 12 rebounds, half of them coming on the offensive glass, to go along with nine points for the Illini (18-8, 5-7) whose 79 points were a season-high in conference play.
Tracy Abrams (13 points, five rebounds, seven assists, two turnovers) had to change jerseys because he got blood on his and Griffey (12 points, six rebounds) followed up a missed three-pointer with a rebound and bucket while drawing a foul as the Illini surpassed last season’s win total of 17.
The effort had Groce slapping the floor and delivering those fist pumps he likes to showcase after toughness plays.
“I’m happy for them. We believed we could keep getting better as the season wore on,” said Groce, whose team outrebounded Purdue 44-34 and scored 23 points off 20 offensive boards. “As a coach you want to find a way to get better and play your best basketball in February and March, we still have room for improvement.”
The arrow is pointed up for the Illini, who ended an eight-game losing streak to Purdue on Wednesday. D.J. Richardson scored a team-high 18 points on a night when top scorer Brandon Paul was limited to three points before fouling out in 22 minutes.
“Other guys stepped up and made plays, made plays at both ends of the floor,” Groce said.
What happened: Illinois scored 40 or more points in the first half for the first time in Big Ten play, the hot start resulting in the end of an eight-game losing streak to the Boilermakers dating to the 2008-09 season.
What the Boilermakers said: “Illinois was really good, I thought they were quicker to the basketball, they were able to establish that from the first couple of possessions. Their effort was a lot better than ours.” — coach Matt Painter
What the Illini said: “I hate that we have to take a day off tomorrow, (director of compliance) Ryan Squire would blow the whistle on me. But we’ll take tomorrow off and get back after it on Friday and Saturday.” — coach John Groce
What it means: The Illini are in a groove and proved they can put together a nice performance when Brandon Paul, who fouled out with a season-low three points, isn’t getting shots to fall.
What’s next: Groce’s squad will head to Evanston to face a depleted Northwestern squad while trying to win four straight Big Ten games for the first time since the 2009-10 season.