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The Journal Gazette

  • Purdue guard Carsen Edwards (3) makes a move down the court past Illinois guard Mark Alstork (24) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Champaign, Ill., Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018. (AP Photo/Stephen Haas)

  • Purdue guard Carsen Edwards (3) shoots over the reach of Illinois guard Trent Frazier during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Champaign, Ill., Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018. Purdue won 93-86. (AP Photo/Stephen Haas)

Thursday, February 22, 2018 11:30 pm

Edwards showed star power in win

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — This was the definition of a hard-fought win for Purdue. Illinois played the way it's played all season, with tremendous toughness, especially on defense. Despite the loss, I came away impressed with the Illini and I can definitely see the outline of a team that could be one of the Big Ten's better groups next season and down the road.

Purdue won Thursday because Carsen Edwards refused to allow it to lose. That, of course, is the main takeaway from his performance tonight. He finished with 40 and Purdue needed almost every single point. Especially early in the second half, when Illinois briefly took the lead and looked like it had all the momentum, Edwards was able to repeatedly make big plays to keep Illinois from taking control.

This win was also about the game plan, however. Edwards clearly had a directive from the coaching staff to drive the ball to the hoop early and often and try to force the issue against Illinois' pressure defense, which focuses on stopping the ball. Once he was able to get in the lane, the Illini's pressure backfired on them because there isn't much help once you beat your man in that defense. Edwards took advantage, scoring on several drives in the first few minutes of the game that really set the tone for his night and might have given him confidence to keep playing aggressively. I could tell it was a special night for Edwards when he hit a 3-pointer from five or six feet behind the line in the first half. Not only did he hit the shot, but he took it without hesitation after the set had broken down and his teammates looked to him to make a play. This game was set up for Edwards to be a star and he delivered.

Senior Dakota Mathias was also excellent in this game, although he'll get overshadowed by the sophomore. Mathias finished with 18 points on 7-for-11 shooting, including four 3-pointers. This was the second straight game in which he's scored 18 points and that's an excellent sign for the Boilermakers, who will need him to play a starring role if Vincent Edwards is out for an extended period of time (we're still not sure when he'll play again after his ankle injury Saturday).

The only black mark on this game, which overall was wildly entertaining and tight most of the way, was Purdue's continued inability to close teams out when it gets a sizable lead. In the first half, the Boilers' margin ballooned to 40-28 with four minutes left, and they could have put Illinois away before halftime. Instead, the Illini finished the half on a 10-3 run that would have been 13-3 had a 3-pointer at the buzzer been released a fraction of a second sooner.

Purdue wound up in a tight game for the entire second half and it was only Edwards' shot-making that kept Illinois from really turning this game into a toss-up. Still, this was a good victory. A win over Minnesota will make it a 15-3 Big Ten season, beyond most fans' highest expectations coming into this year. Then the real work begins.

dsinn@jg.net