WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — The trio of Terry Wymer, Steve McJunkins and Bill Ek didn’t have to deliberate long early in the first half of Tuesday night’s game between No. 21 Illinois and Purdue at Mackey Arena.
The video evidence was clear to the officials. Illinois sophomore guard Alan Griffin stepping on Sasha Stefanovic’s chest after the Purdue redshirt sophomore guard hit a layup was an ejectable offense. So Griffin headed to the visiting locker room with 12 minutes, 18 seconds to play in the first half.
“We don't condone any of that,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said, while adding Griffin had apologized to Stefanovic. “That’s not part of anything we’re trying to do in our program. I told him to go to the locker room and I moved on. You always have to overcome things in the game. We were going to have to overcome that and people were going to have to step up and take that role. That will be something we’ll talk about a little more (Wednesday).”
Stefanovic didn’t address the issue after the game.
“No comment on that,” he said.
Purdue went on a run to tie the game at 14-14 after Griffin’s ejection, but Illinois was able to stop it before the Boilermakers were able to completely flip the game on its head. Purdue wound up never being able to build a bigger lead than one point in the first half.
“We just stuck together,” Illinois freshman center Kofi Cockburn said. “It’s all about being together and making sure we played for the greater good. Alan being ejected, I didn’t see what happened, but that’s not what we do.”
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Purdue took the Northwestern approach to defending Giorgi Bezhanishvili on Tuesday. As in, not guarding the 6-foot-9 Illinois sophomore forward when he had the ball in his hands on the perimeter.
Boilermakers’ center Matt Haarms routinely gave Bezhanishvili between a 6- and 8-foot cushion at the three-point line. Bezhanishvili also turned down multiple shot attempts, including three in the first 4 minutes of the first half before he picked up two fouls.
Turns out when Bezhanishvili actually shoots his shot, he can make it. The Rustavi, Georgia, native actually shot his first wide open three-point attempt in the second half. Made it, too. Then did it again, as he finished with 10 points and five rebounds — all in the second half — in the 79-62 win by the Illini.
“He understood what our game plan was in terms of trying to attack the front of the rim and trying to put pressure on them that way,” Underwood said. “He’s always going to get those shots, and his IQ allowed him to turn down the first one knowing the second time around he may get those. It shows how good a player he is to sit for 17 minutes (in the first half) and still keep that mojo going mentally to still knock those down.”
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There was a bit of tension in the Underwood family Sunday. The Illini had practice set for 1 p.m. One hour before Kansas City Chiefs kicked off against the Tennessee Titans in the AFC championship game. Tyler Underwood tried to talk his dad into moving practice to early evening, so the Illini practiced at 1 p.m.
“He was a little ticked,” Brad Underwood said. “He and I had a very tense practice. He spent most of the day running. His mental focus wasn’t up to speed, as he was more worried whether Tyreek Hill was going to catch a touchdown pass. I did tell any manager that if they told him the score during practice they would be fired immediately.
“He sprinted out of the building and was at his apartment and was calling me screaming when they finally won and were going to the Super Bowl. I’ve got to admit I’m a diehard Chiefs fan, so I’m pretty excited for it myself.”
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Purdue coach Matt Painter had a rough season in his first leading the Boilermakers, winning just nine games in 2005-06. Since? Purdue has won at least 20 games 11 times and is halfway to that mark again this season.
“He’s found a culture,” Underwood said. “You almost want to copy it. It goes back to Gene Keady, and Matt was a part of that. That culture is so ingrained there. It’s the toughness and the excitement they’ve created.
“When you win, you build that kind of success and that kind of following. Matt’s done it with very talented players who are exciting. His last three years — four years, probably — have been as exciting as heck. That following is well deserved.”
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Tuesday was Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk’s second game out of the protective boot the Illinois freshman was wearing to protect his injured right foot. The 6-8, 235-pound forward out of Lommel, Belgium, though was still sidelined for an eighth straight game.
“He’s continuing to improve,” Underwood said. “He still won’t suit. We’re at the discretion of the physicians there, and we’ll continue to monitor it as we move forward.”
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Illinois’ success heading into Tuesday’s game at Purdue is at least partially attributed to how Underwood has handled this rotation this season. After swapping Da’Monte Williams for Andres Feliz in the starting lineup following the Dec. 2 loss to Miami, Underwood has shaped his rotation into essentially an eight-man group. That number can grow to nine with freshman center Jermaine Hamlin available should either Cockburn or Bezhanishvili find themselves in early foul trouble.
That steady rotation has aided in one quite specific way.
“Role identification has been a big, big part of our growth and everybody understanding what they’re doing,” Underwood said. “We don’t need guys to average 20 a night. We’ve got guys coming off the bench who are capable of scoring and provide different things and a great mix in our starting lineup. It’s been a big part of us finding some success in terms of eight or nine guys.”
Role identification from his players — and executing more effectively and efficiently because of it — is something Underwood said he’s been searching for since he got the Illinois job prior to the 2017-18 season. A young team didn’t help in that regard last season.
“Last year we were so young, maybe I played guys shorter stints because of mistakes, because of youth,” Underwood said. “This year I’ve got a tendency to leave them in a little longer. I love what our bench is providing, and I love our energy. I love the leadership Dre gives us and the different punch he has. I’m probably as comfortable as I’ve been since we’ve been here.
“It’s chemistry. When everybody understands their roles and tries to be great at it — no matter what the role is, just be great at your job — then chemistry develops. A willingness to elevate your teammate.”
Illinois junior guard Trent Frazier has been around just as long as Underwood. He’s got the same comfort level with how the Illinois rotation is working at this point of the season.
“Coach will not change that just based off how we’re doing,” Frazier said. “Coach, he doesn’t care about who starts. He’s just going to find five guys he knows who work really well together and put them on the court.”
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Illinois has played a four-guard lineup several times this season with either Cockburn or Bezhanishvili the only big man on the court. Sometimes it’s necessary because of foul trouble to one or both of the Illini’s starting big men. Other times it’s a matchup adjustment Underwood makes.
“Northwestern had a very difficult time going small because they’re not small,” he said. “We ran a couple actions to get guys going on the perimeter with some movement. We like it at times and know we can play it — especially when we’ve got Kofi back there being able to rebound it and protect the rim."