WEST LAFAYETTE – For 20 minutes Wednesday, it looked like Illinois might be able to hang with the No. 14 Boilermakers. The Illini played harder in the first half, frazzled the Boilermakers' second string with their pressure defense and led at halftime despite shooting just 37 percent.
In the second half, Matt Haarms and Carsen Edwards snuffed out any hopes of an upset. It was Purdue's entire starting five that paved the way for the Boilermakers' late-game dominance – the bench was outscored by Illinois' reserves 26-2 – but Haarms and Edwards really led the way in the 73-56 win.
Haarms was tremendous in all facets, posting maybe the best performance of his Purdue career with 21 points on 8-for-8 shooting, 10 rebounds and five blocks. That is a stat-line, folks. It's no coincidence that Illinois went on an 11-2 run and tied the game at 48 while Haarms was on the bench midway through the second half. When Haarms was out, the Illini could compete on the glass. When he was on the floor, the undersized visitors had no chance. When the 7-foot-3 center returned with 9:43 left, the Boilermakers promptly went on a 12-0 run to seal the victory.
"At the start of the second half, we were doing a good job on the defensive glass and as soon as we stopped doing that, they started getting easy ones, really feeding off those second-chance opportunities," Haarms said. "As soon as we put a stop to that, we just had a great opportunity to break it wide open from there."
The Boilermakers ended up outrebounding the feisty Illini 36-27, with Ryan Cline adding eight boards and Grady Eifert and Nojel Eastern six apiece. Haarms' size allows him to not only grab rebounds for himself, but to occupy other defenders so his teammates are free to grab their own boards.
For Edwards, the key was getting to the rim. He'd had a couple of miserable games in a row, going 7 for 40 combined against Indiana and Nebraska, but found his footing against the Illini. He said he planned his game based around the way the Illini defended him last season and he was right to do so: Illinois' pressure defense opened up lanes to the hoop that the Illini were slow to fill with help. Edwards took advantage, going 8 for 14 and taking nine of his shots from inside the arc. In short, he bullied Illinois, just as he did last season. Pressure defense isn't much good when the wing you're guarding is as strong and quick as Edwards. He didn't have 40 points tonight, like he did last season against Illinois, but he played plenty well enough and Haarms picked up the slack.
This was a game that Purdue might have lost early in the season. Illinois put the pressure on and the Boilermakers needed someone to step up. At the start of the year, Edwards might have tried to do too much – as it was, he turned the ball over six times and didn't have an assist – but now Purdue has more options and is a much more poised team. The pressure bothered the Boilers, but they gutted through it and came away with a 15th victory in 17 games. This is a team playing with confidence and playing together.
"The one thing I'm pleased with the most is when we haven't played great, we've found a way," coach Matt Painter said. "I think that's a sign of a good team and I think we just gotta keep doing that. I don't think it was natural for us to grind out victories at the beginning of the season. I think we've grown into where, it's not comfortable for a couple of our guys, but we've grown into having a higher level of experience of being in those type of games and really finding a way."
The Boilermakers are now just three wins from a Big Ten title and they control their own destiny. Every team wants to be peaking in late February and early March and Purdue certainly seems to be doing that.