Purdue 66, UI 58: 'They were tougher'
CHAMPAIGN — With Ronnie Johnson at the free throw line in the closing minute putting the finishing touches on Purdue’s 66-58 win against Illinois at State Farm Center, many of the 15,007 who had entered the building a couple hours prior were making their way toward the exits.
They had just watched their team drop its third straight game after a 2-0 Big Ten start. It’s not the first time they had seen Illinois (13-5, 2-3 Big Ten) drop three straight in recent years. John Groce’s club twice lost three in a row during Big Ten play last season and still managed to reach the NCAA tournament and win a game.
This one feels different, though. That Illinois team had spent time ranked among the Top 10 teams in the country thanks to a win in the Maui Invitational and wins against Top 10 teams Gonzaga and Ohio State.
This year’s team doesn’t have that résumé at this stage of the season. And with four of the next five games against teams currently ranked in the Top 15 in the country — the other game is at Indiana — the Illini are going to have their work cut out to work themselves out of this current funk.
“It’s tough as competitors. Of course we want to win (and) give it our all,” point guard Tracy Abrams said. “As older guys on the team we know we have to be there for each other, keep encouraging each other and find a way to get it done. It’s as simple as that.”
Some critical calls down the stretch didn’t go their way, but the Illini had their chances on Wednesday against the Boilermakers (12-5, 2-2). They just couldn’t capitalize.
Illinois missed three consecutive front ends of one-and-one free throws and made just 1 of 3 from the line in the final minute after being fouled on a three-pointer.
“You can’t control that. (Wednesday) we didn’t make enough of them,” Groce said. “Obviously that was a factor in the game.”
One of the team’s strengths much of the season, rebounding, failed the Illini on Wednesday as the Boilermakers won that battle 42-28, including 17 second-chance points off 16 offensive boards. In the second half, Purdue outrebounded Illinois 23-7.
“It’s unacceptable. They were tougher than us physically and they threw us around like a bunch of rag dolls,” Groce said. “Our guys better figure out quickly the physical toughness that’s required on the backboard.”
After suffering an adductor strain in Sunday’s loss at Northwestern, Illini guard Rayvonte Rice (seven rebounds) started and scored 11 points against Purdue, 10 of which came in the first half. Abrams (five assists) added 13 points, two after halftime, and Joseph Bertrand had 11.
But Purdue was the tougher team on Wednesday, the Illinois contingent saying as much after A.J. Hammons went for 17 points, eight rebounds and three blocks to lead the charge.
“As a leader I kind of put that on my shoulders,” Abrams said. “I definitely have to do a better job of preparing my guys, myself for us to be mentally, physically ready to be tough. It just wasn’t there (Wednesday).”
From a coaching perspective, Groce & Co. will stick to their formula while navigating through this upcoming challenging stretch.
“When I was a first-year coach, I’d bring them in (today), put them in football helmets and football pads, blocking dummies and all that stuff, and then you wear them out for the game on Saturday, win the battle, lose the war,” Groce said. “You’ve got to be smart. It’s more mental than anything else. We’ve done it. We’ve got to get back to doing it and doing it better.”