In the Big Ten Network's opener for Illinois vs. Purdue, a highlighted key for the Boilers was the need for veteran leadership from D.J. Byrd and Terone Johnson.
Two hours later, those two had provided enough backbone to propel Purdue to a 68-61 win over the 11th-ranked Illini at Mackey Arena in the Big Ten opener for both teams.
Johnson scored a career-high 25 points, 13 coming in the first half, along with nine rebounds and four assists. Byrd scored 12 of his 15 in the final 10 minutes, along with capping the game with one of the headiest plays of the season so far.
A 20-4 run midway through the second half put Purdue up by 10 with 2:57 left after Johnson drained four straight foul shots. Illinois fought back to within two and thought it would have an opportunity to tie or take the lead until Byrd rebounded a missed free throw with 21 seconds left.
Byrd was granted a timeout as he knelt along the baseline, preserving possession and the two-point lead. He followed with a three-point play on the next possession that essentially iced the game.
Coming into the game, Purdue's biggest opportunity lay with its perimeter defense. The Boilers had allowed only 29 percent three-point shooting in its first 12 games, a major key when facing a team that tosses up 25 long ones per game.
Illinois drained five of its first seven, however. If not for Johnson's first-half production, the Illini could have shot the Boilers out of the game quickly. Especially dangerous was Purdue's inclination to match Illinois shot-for-shot before halftime. The Boilers were 3-of-10 from long range in the first half.
In the second half, Purdue became much more aggressive in attacking the basket, attempting only six three-pointers compared to 15 free throws. Johnson was 6-of-7 from the line in the second half, impressive success for a 59-percent shooter.
The vaunted Purdue defense tightened in the game's final 28 minutes, forcing the Illini into 5-of-19 shooting from deep during that span. The normally efficient Joseph Bertrand, a 60 percent field-goal shooter entering the game, was held to 1-of-7 in the second half before fouling out with 14 points.
Illinois' leading scorer, senior gunner Brandon Paul, was held to only 10 field-goal attempts and 15 points. He was harassed relentlessly by Terone Johnson, particularly early in the second half. Paul scored all eight of his second-half points in an 88-second span that almost erased Purdue's 10-point lead.
The Illini were outrebounded 38-31, needing guards Bertrand and D.J. Richardson to produce 16 of those caroms. This is the third straight game in which Illinois has been beaten on the boards against a major conference opponent. Interior bangers Nnanna Egwu and Sam McLaurin will need to be more productive on the glass or else Illinois will give up large numbers of extra possessions to bigger Big Ten opponents.
Purdue big men A.J. Hammons and Jacob Lawson combined for 14 rebounds, and Johnson added nine more.
Players like Terone and Ronnie Johnson wisely left the bulk of the three-point shooting to the senior sniper Byrd, who took nine of Purdue's 16 long shots. The offense was effective when the Johnson brothers were able to penetrate.
Overall, Purdue is a 65-percent foul-shooting team, and its 12-of-19 effort was right within that range. In the last three minutes, however, the Boilers drained seven of nine, with the only misses being Lawson's pair that led to Byrd's climactic sliding rebound.
For the moment, Purdue can say it's got a share of first place in the Big Ten. Saturday's matchup with Michigan State is a bigger challenge against a bigger opponent.
This loss may suggest that Illinois is slightly over-ranked, but look for Illinois to have more success when not facing the Big Ten's second-best perimeter defensive team. On this night, the Illini faced an opponent whose strengths dovetailed a bit too perfectly with their own.
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