The second-seeded Purdue Boilermakers moved on to the Big Ten Tournament semifinals Friday night with a 69-61 win over the seventh-seeded Northwestern Wildcats.
It was anything but easy for Purdue. The Wildcats built an 11-point first-half lead, and hung around all night against the talented Boilermakers. However, Purdue’s superior talent and trademark defensive tenacity proved too much. Star juniors E’Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson carried Purdue to victory.
Moore poured in 28 points, tying his career high, and Johnson added 22 despite early foul trouble that forced him to the bench.
Northwestern stars Michael Thompson and John Shurna had a rough night. Shurna led the Wildcats with 16 points, but struggled from outside, shooting just 1-for-5 beyond the arc. Late in the game, both Thompson and Shurna seemed worn out by the Boilermakers’ physicality, particularly Thompson, the point guard who often was forced to help cover a big man down low in Northwestern’s 1-3-1 zone.
Early on, it was Northwestern’s game. Johnson picked up his second foul with 14:41 left in the first half and Purdue trailing 11-4. The Wildcats would build a 17-6 advantage with Johnson out of the game, but two-time Big Ten Defensive MVP Chris Kramer helped out inside, and Moore kept the Boilermakers close. During the first half, the silky-smooth, explosive junior guard hit four 3-pointers and scored 16 points to help Purdue chip away at the deficit it faced. The Boilers outscored the Wildcats 28-13 over the final 10:26 of the first half, and trailed only 34-30 at halftime.
Purdue took its first lead 1:02 into the second half when an offensive rebound by diminutive point guard Lewis Jackson led to a layup and three-point play by senior combo guard Keaton Grant. Indeed, vulnerability to offensive rebounds is an obvious weakness of the 1-3-1, and Purdue grabbed 15 total offensive boards against Northwestern’s zone, which helps explain how the Boilers were able to win despite a poor shooting performance.
Purdue led 45-43 when a rare mental lapse cost the Wildcats dearly. A dead-ball elbow by NU’s Luca Mirkovic during a Purdue free-throw attempt resulted in an intentional foul call, four free throws (Purdue made three), and a five-point possession, stretching the Boilermakers’ lead to 50-43.
The gritty Wildcats never went away, though. A Jeremy Nash 3-pointer improbably drew the Wildcats within one, 62-61, with 45.8 seconds left in the game, but Kramer’s driving layup and free throw restored the Boilermakers’ four-point edge, and Northwestern wouldn’t score again.
Purdue will face Minnesota on Saturday, because the Gophers upset third-seeded Michigan State in overtime.
Thanks to widespread early foul trouble, Purdue’s bench logged lots of pressure minutes against Northwestern. That could pay off on Saturday and beyond, and with the absence of star Robbie Hummel, the reserves will inevitably be tested for the Boilermakers.
That said, Johnson must stay out of foul trouble. Freshman Patrick Bade probably won’t be able to handle Golden Gopher big men Ralph Sampson III and Colton Iverson.
The defensive tenacity that gave Purdue its hard-fought quarterfinal win will make the Boilermakers a tough opponent for whomever they face for the rest of the weekend. Matt Painter’s young bench players lack offensive polish, but are more than willing to D up. They’ll need to do just that against Minnesota’s stable of shooters.