WEST LAFAYETTE -- During a full week preparation for Purdue’s pivotal game with Nebraska, head coach Matt Painter put his players on the line and he made them run. And then run some more. Then more and more.
The players were in agreement that these were the hardest, most grueling workouts they had experienced—for some, in any sport. It was punishment for a lackluster effort, and was supposed to serve as a wakeup call.
After Purdue’s uninspired 70-64 win over a bottom-dwelling Nebraska team, Painter will likely have his players back on the line.
Entering Mackey Arena on Sunday, the Boilermakers needed a win in the worst way. They had come up short against then-unbeaten Ohio State and a tough Minnesota team. Yet, waiting for Purdue on its home floor were the weary Cornhuskers. For a team touting it as a “must-win” game, this was a contest made to be a whitewash.
Continuing the troubling theme, Purdue didn’t show up to play. The effort was lethargic and far too sloppy, from the missed 11 missed free throws to the 12 turnovers. There’s no excuse for that, especially after a full week of practice and preparation.
With just over six minutes on the clock, Nebraska had taken the lead. Mackey Arena fell silent as the Boilermakers searched for something. As it would turn out, Purdue found a 15-6 run to close the game, sparked by a Ronnie Johnson jumper then two go-ahead free throws.
Purdue has been a team of runs all season long—some good, some bad. But this was supposed to be the 40-minute drubbing of a lesser foe. Frankly, the Boilermakers shouldn’t have even let Nebraska hang around in this game.
Reflecting on the victory, Painter saw it as a mixed bag.
“It’s effort and results,” he said. “I didn’t like the results until the end.”
The most frustrating stretch for Painter’s Purdue team was when it had five turnovers in a span of six possessions. A four-point Boilermaker lead inexplicably became a deficit.
What makes these Boilermakers unique is their resiliency to heal from self-inflicted wounds. They’ve pulled out the late-game wins before—even with their play being so sloppy—and believe they can do it again and again. In the huddles, there was no panic or worry. They remained confident.
“We have faith in each other, we didn’t let [the deficit] rattle us,” said senior guard Sterling Carter, whose eight points off the bench proved to be important.
Added Ronnie Johnson: “We fought hard, I thought, and that’s what we need to do every game.”
However, Purdue’s fight wasn’t what it needed to be for the entire 40 minutes. A must-win game didn’t bring out the determination expected, not even after spending the week sprinting up and down the Cardinal Court practice floor.
The only sign of urgency came in a quote from Carter, the fifth-year senior who transferred to Purdue desperate to make the big dance in final chance.
“Guys are understanding that time is ticking,” Carter said. “If we want to be in the NCAA Tournament in March, we have to pick it up.”
Perhaps the Boilermakers’ play will reflect this moving forward. Until that happens, it’s back to work in practice.