WEST LAFAYETTE – Some coaches recommend that when their team loses a game, they try to put it behind them and forget about it. Purdue coach Matt Painter doesn't want that. He wants his team to learn lessons from their losses and the lessons won't stick if the players forget about those defeats.
To hear Painter and his players tell it, Purdue's 88-76 loss to No. 13 Penn State at Mackey Arena tonight was a case of the Boilermakers forgetting the lessons of previous losses. In letting the Nittany Lions take the initiative from the opening tip, dictate the tempo of the game and out-work the Boilers, Purdue was lapsing into the bad habits that led to defeats against Illinois and Nebraska earlier in the season. Painter specifically compared tonight's loss to the beating his team took at home against the Fighting Illini on Jan. 21. Just like that game, the Boilers didn't come out with enough energy from the opening tip, despite a crowd that stood ready to explode at the first hint that Purdue might be able to make a game of it. It was a disappointing performance for a team that had won three games in a row, including two on the road.
"We can't forget about what we've done, how we've tried to turn this thing around the past couple games," said Eric Hunter Jr., who had 14 points, three rebounds and three assists. "I think we got complacent, got kind of comfortable. ... We have to get that fight back, get that dog back in us and we'll be fine."
Painter seemed baffled that his team would get complacent.
"I don't know what they're complacent about," the coach said. "Is your goal to win 14 games? [Note: the Boilermakers are 14-11.] Did you write down before the season, 'I hope we get 14 this year'? Is that your goal? You got admitted to Purdue, you're smart enough to think about what's going on in here. Go out and play hard. I don't understand about complacency; you've gotta fight people. If that was a boxing match, we would've been down early. It wouldn't have gotten to the second round."
I actually thought Purdue played pretty well in certain parts of the game. The outcome likely would have been very different if the Boilermakers had been able to knock down any of the half-dozen open 3-pointers they had in the first half or make even half of the shots that rimmed out around the basket throughout the game. It was a frustrating performance because it always felt like the Boilers were one big shot away from sending Penn State to the mat, to continue Painter's boxing analogy. That big shot never really came, at least not until the final minutes in the second half, when it was too little, too late. As disappointed as Painter was with the energy for most of the game, he had to have been pleased that his team kept battling in the final minutes, throwing everything it had into a full-court press that helped sliced the Nittany Lion margin to as few as seven with 1:05 left. If that energy had shown up 5-10 minutes earlier, we might be talking about a huge Boilermakers comeback win. Credit to Penn State, too, for staying poised in an arena that was losing its mind as the Boilers closed the gap.
So now Purdue has to do what it has done so often this season: find a way to bounce back. Usually, bouncing back has meant putting together a good performance at home after a lackluster loss on the road. This time, the Boilers are staring down back-to-back road games at Ohio State and at Wisconsin, two difficult environments. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that Purdue's NCAA Tournament hopes depend on getting at least a split of those games.
"You get in these situations, you're playing quality people in a conference like us, you get good at regrouping or you don't get good at regrouping," coach Matt Painter said. "It goes either way and so now we have two road games in a row. That's a tough order for us, but it's also a great challenge. If you have competitive people in your locker room, which we do, you want that challenge."