WEST LAFAYETTE – If anyone was under the impression Purdue would be intimidated by Virginia's suffocating defense, the Boilermakers put those worries to rest in the first minutes against the Cavaliers tonight.
Purdue came out with a new lineup, giving Sasha Stefanovic his first career start, and Stefanovic delivered, coming off a series of screens to nail three straight 3-point attempts to push Purdue in front early. All three shots ripped through the net without coming close to touching the rim and each of them nearly brought the roof down at Mackey Arena. Stefanovic's early flurry not only served to get the Purdue offense going, it also got the capacity crowd firmly involved in the game. The noise stayed at a steady roar much of the rest of the half and the new-look Virginia team looked a little rattled at times with the noise cascading around them.
Purdue held its early lead for the rest of the half against a Virginia offense that isn't built to score in bunches. The Boilermakers were disciplined on defense, keeping the Cavaliers off the free-throw line (Virginia attempted just two foul shots) and forcing them into some long 3-pointers that mostly missed. The Cavaliers went 2 for 15 from long distance in the first half and went more than nine minutes without scoring. Those could start going in in the second half, but unless it starts raining 3s, the Cavaliers could have trouble getting back into this game. This is a defense-first team and Purdue has picked the lock on that safe.
Virginia came into the game with opponents shooting 28.8% from the field. With 7:50 left in the first half, Purdue led 21-9 and the Boilermakers were hitting 57% of their field goals. That's not a great offensive performance, it's an astounding one for a team that has not been good on that end of the floor this season. Purdue hasn't really done anything particularly innovative on offense to solve Virginia's stifling defense. Rather, the Boilermakers have just made simple plays, cutting well without the ball, making smart passes and knocking down open shots. Nojel Eastern said Tuesday that the mentality against this defense has to be "take the first open look" and the Boilermakers, especially Stefanovic and Jahaad Proctor have taken that to heart. Proctor was a shot-maker all half, hitting a couple of tough jumpers and going 5 for 6 from the field for 11 points. Against a defense this good, sometimes you have to hit tough shots and the High Point transfer has done just that. It has helped that Purdue has done what Matt Painter has been asking them to do: take care of the ball. The Boilermakers turned it over just five times in the first half after giving it away 24 times against Florida State on Saturday. Painter said Purdue has beaten Purdue and that has certainly not happened tonight.
This is obviously the best half of basketball the Boilermakers have played this season by a significant margin. This game is also not over, however. It's true that the Cavaliers aren't really built to come back from large deficits, but it's also true that they missed a lot of relatively open 3s in the first half. If some of those start going down and their defense tightens a little, they could get back into it. For now, however, it's fine to celebrate Purdue making an elite team look mediocre.