CHAMPAIGN, Illinois – Purdue guard Sasha Stefanovic stood in the State Farm Center tunnel, answering questions from the media after scoring 22 points, including 19 after halftime, and grabbing eight rebounds in a 96-88 double-overtime win over No. 17 Illinois this afternoon.
Midway through his interview, Stefanovic was momentarily interrupted by Illinois guard Trent Frazier, who greeted him with an upbeat, "Alright, killer!"
Stefanovic paused his answer and responded: "Alright bro, good to see you."
It was a small moment, but it was illustrative. After battling each other for 50 minutes, in a game physical even by rough-and-tumble Big Ten standards, these teams have a ton of respect for one another. Someone had to win in the end and Purdue found a way to make shots in the game's biggest moments, but these are two squads with the potential to make deep NCAA Tournament runs. Even Illinois coach Brad Underwood was smiling when he strode across the sideline to shake hands with an exhausted-looking Matt Painter at game's end.
“I couldn’t be happier," Underwood said. "For a loss? I couldn’t happier. We got better today. ... (It was) a high-level game, very good game, two very good basketball teams."
It's unclear if Purdue got better necessarily (the Boilers have been very good most of the year after all), but it will certainly leave Champaign a more confident team. The Boilermakers won against a ranked opponent on the road for the first time this season and the first time anywhere since Nov. 21. After treading water for several weeks, getting tripped up by an inferior Rutgers team and losing to the only good team they played in that stretch (Wisconsin), the Boilers needed a victory to keep their hopes alive for a record 25th Big Ten championship. They got the win despite letting leads get away on four different occasions after halftime. Each time Illinois made a run to tie the game in the second half and overtime, Purdue responded with plays of its own. As resilient as Illinois was for 50 minutes, it was the Boilermakers who made the game's decisive plays in the second overtime: a fadeaway corner 3 for Stefanovic and back-to-back Eric Hunter Jr. layups off of pretty interior passes from Trevion Williams.
Yes, there were plenty of hiccups for the Boilermakers along the way. One of the most glaring problems with their performance was a complete inability to guard Illinois' pick-and-roll offense in the second half and overtime. Illini guards Andre Curbelo, Frazier and Alfonso Plummer got to the rim almost any time they wanted to and that led to a bevy of kick-out 3s, plus game-tying baskets in the final 15 seconds of regulation and the first overtime. After holding the hosts to 31% shooting in the first half, the Boilermakers weren't able to sustain their defensive discipline after the break and Painter insisted his team is still only "average" on that end of the court. Of course, Illinois' guards (especially Curbelo, who, while he often makes head-scratching decisions, is a bolt of lightning off the dribble) are going to make more than a few teams feel the same way, but Painter was often left shaking his head at Purdue's inability to get stops down the stretch of the game.
In addition, the Boilermakers gave away a chance to win the game at the end of regulation when a play designed to get Stefanovic an open look ended with the guard trying frantically to free himself from Frazier's glue-like defense 30 feet from the basket. The fifth-year senior ended up tossing up a fadeaway that got nowhere near the rim as the buzzer sounded, leading Painter to chastise himself for a "horrendous" play call.
Despite those issues, it's difficult to come away from this game feeling anything but encouraged about Purdue's overall performance. That's especially true when it comes to center Zach Edey, who poured in 20 points on 9-for-14 shooting and added eight rebounds. Edey took the game to Illinois center Kofi Cockburn from the opening tipoff and, while he wasn't able to go through the 7-0, 285-pound Big Ten Player of the Year contender, he adjusted to go over and around him, dealing with plenty of contact along the way. The pair of big men were pounding on each other every time they faced off in the post and the referees were doing little to stop it. Edey, who played hockey in his youth before out-growing the rink, quickly clocked the type of game it would be and out-muscled Cockburn, who was limited to 10 points on 3-for-9 shooting.
"Well (Edey) should have been more comfortable than everybody else – he was a hockey player and it was a hockey game," Painter said. "They fouled every play, we probably fouled every play. I thought he handled it well. ... I thought he embraced the physicality of the game and ... he was ready to play. If you can go and establish your big man, it really gets (the opponent) in a bind and helps everything."
His matchup with Cockburn, which saw Edey go 6 of 7 from the field in the first half for 14 points, made the Purdue center reflective after the game. He gained confidence from seeing all of his hard work in practice over the last two years pay off against the rare opponent who can match him physically. When he found Cockburn difficult to move off a spot, he used workarounds he did not possess when he got to Purdue, showing off a bevy of nifty post moves he can execute with both hands.
"I started to see what it's like guarding people like me now, people who are just really strong, long, quick," Edey said. "It's tough, I feel bad for other people. ... I just had to learn on the fly, adapt as the game went on. ... Most games I can just overpower people with my strength, but this proves to myself I can adapt on the fly and do other things."
This was one of those games with nearly too many heroes to mention. In addition to Stefanovic and Edey, Jaden Ivey poured in 19 points, willing himself to the foul line 15 times despite a poor shooting day; Williams also struggled to shoot but finished with 14 points, seven rebounds and five assists; Hunter had 11 points, including eight in the second overtime, in one of his best games of the season.
Purdue has not yet reached its potential but the Boilermakers earned a galvanizing victory this afternoon. Even Painter, despite his reservations about his team's defensive performance, betrayed some optimism about the direction of his team's season when he entertained a question about what it would take to win a Big Ten title with more than the usual "take it one game at a time" pablum.
"It's going to be difficult," the 17th-year Purdue coach said. "We have a lot of basketball still to play. You're going to have to take care of homecourt. (The Illini) stubbed their toe today, we stubbed our toe against Wisconsin, so we both have a home loss. Coach (Gene) Keady used to say if you win all your home games and split on the road, you're going to be in position that last week of the season. That was his theory and he won six (Big Ten titles), so we're going to stick with it."