CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Walking out of the State Farm Center locker room, the Purdue players were all smiles.
Kendall Stephens was looking ahead to the Beefhouse dinner waiting on the team bus. A.J. Hammons was excited for a team movie on the ride home, a reward for each road win.
To the victors go the spoils. After Purdue pulled out a 66-58 victory over Illinois, it has plenty to enjoy.
“It’s huge for us,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said after the win.
It was one of those games that the Boilermakers had to have. In the brutally tough Big Ten conference, any road win is important. But the way Purdue pulled it out makes the feeling even sweeter.
The Boilermakers won the game playing from behind through most of the second half, then held on with key stops, smart possessions and clutch free throws. This hasn’t exactly been commonplace for the young Purdue team.
“It’s a great feeling,” sophomore point guard Ronnie Johnson said. “Everyone showed up to play today. We just need games like that—everyone showing up, making shots. We’re looking like a family out there.”
It was Johnson’s three-pointer that propelled Purdue ahead, 54-52, with five minutes remaining. On the next possession, freshman guard Kendall Stephens drilled a three from far beyond the arc. The Boilermakers would never look back.
“I thought that was the dagger in the game,” Johnson said. “Those were big shots.”
With the lead still intact, the Boilermakers overcame their greatest struggle of the season, free throw shooting. They didn’t miss one from the charity stripe while working to hold the lead.
“For our guys to grind it out and make some free throws at the end, hopefully that gives us some confidence,” Painter said.
A.J. Hammons led all scorers with 17 points, while Ronnie Johnson provided 13 and Terone Johnson added 10. The Boilermakers shot a clean 41.9 percent from the field, hitting 13 of 27 in the second half.
The statistic which stood out to Painter after the win was how Purdue dominated the boards. The Boilermakers had 14 more rebounds than the Fighting Illini, including eight more on offense. In addition, they scored 17 second-chance points.
“That was the game,” Painter said.
Meanwhile, Illinois coach John Groce didn’t mix any words about the rebounding margin.
“They were tougher than us and they threw us around like a bunch of rag dolls,” Groce said.
Illinois closed the first half on a 16-2 run, then opened up a six-point lead in the opening minute of the second half. Later on, A.J. Hammons’ otherwise stellar performance took a brief hiatus when he picked up three fouls in a minute’s span.
There are the factors that have doomed this Purdue team in losses from the past. On Wednesday night, the Boilermakers overcame it all.
“Everybody brought intensity, we stayed composed when they took the lead at halftime,” Johnson said. “We just kept fighting and getting defensive stops.”
The Boilermakers have much to enjoy on their victorious ride home from Champaign.