COLUMBUS, Ohio – Purdue proved it.
Before the Boilermakers' game against No. 15 Ohio State tonight, I wrote that it was a measuring stick game for them. They passed the test with flying colors, turning in one of their best defensive performances of the year, easily winning the battle on the glass, limiting their turnovers and winning 67-65 despite making only five 3-pointers while Ohio State made 14.
Oh yeah, and their ultra-talented freshman made the biggest shot of his collegiate career to date.
Jaden Ivey's 3-pointer that put the Boilermakers ahead 67-64 with five seconds remaining was arguably the most important shot a Boiler has made since Carsen Edwards banked in a go-ahead 3 with a minute left against Virginia in the 2019 Elite Eight. That's not only because it sent Purdue to a fourth straight victory, a statement win on the road against another red-hot opponent, but because it might be a turning point for Ivey's confidence shooting the ball. He's so talented going to the rim that if he can even be an average shooter from the outside, he could be one of the most dynamic freshman guards in the country.
The freshman from Mishawaka came into the game shooting 18.5% from 3-point range and missed his first four, but then made two straight in huge moments. Coach Matt Painter said he makes those shots all the time in practice, so it might have been something of a mental block that has built up about shooting in the game. With his shots in the final three minutes tonight, including the game-winner, that block could be gone.
Purdue tweeted a video after the game of Ivey sitting in a chair in the locker room, clearly very emotional, with his head in hands. His teammates were standing around him, patting him quietly on the back. Then, suddenly, a Boilermaker comes in and showers Ivey with water from a huge Gatorade container, breaking the silence and creating a massive celebration with a yelling Ivey at the center. That's certainly one way to get a freshman's confidence up.
"He deserves it," said Trevion Williams, who had 16 points and seven rebounds. "No one deserves it more than him. He's been putting in countless hours in the gym. Anytime you ask for Jaden, he's in the gym somewhere shooting."
"He's probably one of the most talented players to roll through Purdue in a long time," added Sasha Stefanovic, who hit a game-tying 3 with 52 seconds left and had 15 points.
Ivey was still fighting his emotions as he talked to the media after the game. His voice cracked a couple of times, including as he ruminated on what it meant for Purdue to put the ball in his hands, a freshman's hands, with such a big game on the line.
"It means everything," Ivey said of Painter calling his number in the final seconds. "(Painter) is a great person and I'm very thankful that I chose this university to play for a great coach. ... I've been struggling and he hasn't lost faith in me, he still has the confidence in me and that's what I love about him. I'm just so thankful he chose me to come here."
"I care, I care a lot about winning, I care about how I play, because I know my potential," he added. "I just care so much and I don't want to be the reason our team can't win. (Shooting poorly) just drives me crazy me sometimes."
This game was about more than Ivey, however. The Boilermakers won on the road against a top 15 team for the first time since 2012 and did so despite shooting poorly. They found a way to win by attacking the basket and bearing down on defense against an athletic, confident Ohio State team that was also playing at a high level coming in.
Wins over Indiana, Penn State and particularly Michigan State were big for the Boilermakers, but this victory is on a different level in terms of what it says about the development of the youngest team in the Big Ten. Ohio State had this game won several times, taking a six-point lead with 3:35 left and a five-point advantage with 2:08 to go. Both times, the Buckeyes hit what looked like a back-breaking 3 and both times, the Boilermakers remained perfectly poised and just kept coming. For a team with no seniors that is still figuring out what it can be, that is remarkable resilience.
Maybe the best sign is how many different players contributed tonight. Williams was his usual dominant self in the post, Ivey had his best game to date, Zach Edey provided valuable minutes when Williams was in foul trouble, Stefanovic made the huge 3 late plus some big plays going to the rim when he was bottled up from outside and Aaron Wheeler made more than his share of hustle plays. Many thought Purdue would be a good team next year, when it has everyone back from this season, which was supposed to be a building year. That was wrong. The Boilermakers are good now and they're getting better.
"Everybody in the Big Ten is good and we need wins," Stefanovic said. "In order to win in this league, you need to play really tough, you have to be resilient on both ends of the floor and ... late in games recently, we've really shown what Purdue basketball is about, how we play hard and we get rebounds and play tough on the defensive end and we execute offensively. That's the foundation of our program and what it's about. ... This team's shown a lot of grit in these last few games."