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The Journal Gazette

Wednesday, February 27, 2019 9:40 pm

Halftime: Illinois 33, No. 14 Purdue 32

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

WEST LAFAYETTE – Illinois has brought the pressure. 

We knew the Illini would be fired up and ready to play all-out on defense, but the visitors have a hit a new level of physicality that they didn't possess even earlier this season. After seeing them up close, it's easy to see how they've turned their season around: they're fearsome and it looks like there are six guys on the defensive end.

To Purdue's credit, the Boilermakers have not been intimidated and they haven't back down from the physical challenge. The first few possessions were a little dicey – Purdue gave it away three times in its first four offensive trips – but the Boilers quickly settled in and began moving the ball around, which is like Kryptonite for this Illinois defense. Purdue was able to get plenty of open shots with crisp passing and led early on as a aresult. Illinois eventually forced eight turnovers in the half. 

As the half wore on, however, Matt Painter tried to get his starters some rest from the relentless pressure and sent in his line of freshman – Trevion Williams, Aaron Wheeler, Eric Hunter Jr. and Sasha Stefanovic – to try to hold down the fort for a few minutes. The young players struggled against the Illini's aggressiveness and missed three straight 3-pointers while Illinois got hot from beyond the arc. The Illini aren't a particularly good shooting team, but they shot well on 3s in the first half, going 5 for 11, with all five coming from different players. The mini-barrage from deep pushed Illinois in front and the visitors led most of the latter part of the half. 

The simple fact so far has been that Illinois looks, remarkably, like the deeper team. Purdue has gotten so much from its supporting cast this season, but tonight the Boilermakers' reserves are getting easily far out-played by the equally young Illini. Illinois has a 14-0 advantage in bench points and that figures to be a factor down the stretch as Purdue's starters tire a bit against the pressure defense.

Purdue's saving grace so far has been getting the ball inside. That's the key against this Illinois defense. The way in which it pressures the ball leaves little room for help defense and the Boilers have been able to get to the rim almost whenever they want. Nojel Eastern has been particularly adept at using his strength to get the first line of defense for baskets and he has eight points, while Purdue holds a 22-8 advantage in points in the paint.

This is the kind of battle I figured Purdue would be in for tonight and Illinois hasn't disappointed. So far, the Boilermakers' starters seem up to the task, while the reserves are still trying to get their feet under them. Carsen Edwards scored 25 points in the second half against Illinois last season and that would really help tonight.

dsinn@jg.net