Big Ten Tournament, Quarterfinals: Torrid shooting leads Purdue to easy romp over Penn State
Purdue vs Illinois
JaJuan Johnson and Robbie Hummel took several minutes to get into the flow of Saturday's Big Ten Tournament semifinal against Illinois. But once the brother basketballers revved up their engines, they set a tone the Fighting Illini couldn't reverse.
Johnson and Hummel produced 39 points on 13-of-27 shooting to pace Purdue past Illinois, 66-56, to move Matt Painter's team into Sunday's championship game against Ohio State. The win also puts Purdue in position to potentially claim a protected (top-4) seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament.
After starting the season as the Big Ten favorite, the injury-ravaged Boilermakers now have a chance to walk away with some conference hardware, tournament-style. Michigan State might have claimed the top spot in the 18-game slog from late December through early March, but with one more win in Indianapolis, Purdue can call itself a Big Ten champion as well.
Why is the third seed from West Lafayette in such a prime place? You only needed to look at the exploits of a dynamic inside-outside duo Illinois couldn't contain. Midway through the first half of this matchup, Johnson and Hummel scored 19 of 22 Purdue points (from the 15:20 mark until the 5:19 mark of the period) to give the black-shirted squad a 30-17 lead. This flurry by a pair of meal-ticket scorers seemed to intimidate the Illini, who were once again playing without glue-guy guard Chester Frazier.
As Hummel and (particularly) Johnson began to get a winning gleam in their eye, Purdue's roster--the five on the floor plus everyone on the bench--gained a spring in their step. The third seed's energy soared in a building and a city where the crowd was naturally inclined to support the in-state team. Conseco might have been an officially neutral site, but since Purdue defeated Davidson last December in the same arena, Painter's pupils had to feel at home. When Hummel and Johnson began to showcase their skills, Purdue gained more than scoreboard leverage; the Indiana-based Boilers generated momentum in Indianapolis. The mixture of confident shooting and escalating enthusiasm posed a worst-case scenario to an Illinois club that needed to grind in this game and maintain close contact for the duration.
How can one tell that Illinois lost heart when Hummel and Johnson got going? Easy: The Illini couldn't put the ball in the bucket. Sometimes, the second seed from Champaign sagged and hoisted contested looks from uncomfortable spots on the floor. However, there were many other occasions when--during Purdue's first-half surge--the orange-shirted outfit missed entirely makeable shots. One of the great mysteries of March Madness--be it in the conference tournaments or the upcoming Big Dance--emerges whenever a team gets the looks it wants, but simply can't knock them down. This happened to Michigan State for stretches of the earlier semifinal showdown, and the same pattern emerged for Illinois in this contest as well.
Play a game several times, and certain kinds of shots will fall more often than not, but on one bad day at the office, some shots simply never fall through the net. Such is the danger and delight of college basketball's one-and-done tournaments. Illinois had a number of open 16-footers, medium-range opportunities that Weber couldn't frown upon. Illinois' length, and its ability to play over the top of other teams, enables players such as Dominique Keller and Mike Davis to release shots with a free shooting hand, a critical aspect of the sport. Against Purdue, however, Davis wasn't his normal dead-eye self, and when the Illini weren't able to get Davis or fellow big man Mike Tisdale in a lot of post-up situations against JaJuan Johnson, the second seed became pinned to the perimeter, and that's where the plot was lost.
When teams simply don't shoot the ball with confidence the way Illinois did in the first half, they have to get to the rim. This is why Demetri McCamey's inability to get to the basket hurt Illinois so much; even more instructively; it's why the absence of Frazier--which gives McCamey more off-the-ball freedom--is so deeply devastating to the Illini on the eve of the NCAAs. At any rate, Illinois' shooting woes were so pronounced that the designated home team (playing what was essentially a road game) didn't hit a field goal in a span of 12 minutes and 34 seconds, bridging the end of the first half and the start of the second. Illinois didn't even score a single point in a 10-minute, 50-second stretch that covered much of the same time span. From 8:32 of the first half until the 17:42 mark of the second half, Purdue--who led 23-17 at the beginning of that segment--built a 39-17 lead before the Illini could finally dent the scoreboard, and by then, it was all over but the shouting in Indianapolis.
Purdue made the first Big Ten Tournament final in 1997 against Michigan. It's hard to believe that a quality program with superb coaches and a proud hoops hasn't been back to the finals ever since. But now, the Boilermakers have finally climbed into the ring for a title bout. With 40 more magnificent minutes, this 2008-'09 season will produce a Big Ten title after all.