WEST LAFAYETTE – Purdue got a mini-scare thrown into it, regrouped and is running away with its final non-conference game.
The No. 3 Boilermakers trailed by as many as six in the first half against visiting Nicholls State this evening, but roared back behind one of their best shooting performances of the season. At halftime, Purdue is 11 for 19 from beyond the arc, Sasha Stefanovic has 12 points on 4-of-8 3-point shooting and the Boilers lead 55-36.
Nicholls spent the game's first seven minutes doing exactly what it needed to do in order to hang around: take care of the ball, force some turnovers and hit a mess of 3s. The Colonels drilled 5 of 6 3-pointers in a 2:50 span, including four in a row at one juncture, to silence the Boilermaker crowd. When high-scoring guard Ty Gordon drained his third long ball in quick succession, the visitors from the Southland Conference led 17-11 and there was some anxious murmuring going through the crowd.
The problem for Nicholls was it had absolutely no way to guard Zach Edey and Trevion Williams one on one. Purdue tried to force the ball to the bigs a little bit too much in the early going with the Colonels sagging extra defenders over to help guard them, but once the Boilers cleaned up their entry passes somewhat, Nicholls had few answers. They tried sending a double team at Purdue's centers when they got the ball in the post, but Williams and Edey are so adept at kick-out passes they were able to find open shooters on the perimeter without much trouble. It didn't help Nicholls' cause that Purdue got hot from beyond the arc. Sasha Stefanovic and Brandon Newman combined for a flurry of long-distance shots off of kick-out passes and Edey added a 3-point play on the one post touch in which he didn't see a double team during a 20-0 Purdue run that put the Boilers up by double digits. Mason Gillis, starting in place of Fort Wayne native Caleb Furst, who is in the health and safety protocol, drained a 3 of his own to cap the spurt.
At halftime, the Boilermakers are shooting 59% from the field, while Nicholls is at 38%. The Colonels cooled off significantly after their early flurry from 3-point range. They still ran some good offense, but they couldn't get anything to fall as Purdue widened the lead. The Boiler defense wasn't great during this stretch – Purdue still got beaten off the dribble too often – but it was good enough to hold down an efficient offense. Maybe the most important stat of the half was Nicholls' 2-point shooting rate: 35.2%. When the Colonels nearly pulled an upset at Wisconsin (they eventually lost 71-68), they shot 58% from inside the arc. Their leading scorer, Ty Gordon, is a 60% shooter from 2-point range, but he is 0 for 3 from there at halftime. Purdue's defensive strategy seems to be to mostly give the Colonels what they want from long range and batten down the hatches inside. That strategy appeared doomed early on when Nicholls was hitting everything, but it now appears prescient.
Matt Painter likes to say a team always looks better when shots are falling. That's absolutely true of Purdue today: a red-hot shooting performance has masked a pretty average overall game. On the other hand, not everyone is capable of putting the kind of shooting barrage the Boilermakers unleashed in the first half. Moreover, the onslaught commenced when Purdue trailed against an inferior opponent after a six-day break. That shows some poise and flat-out shooting talent. The Boilers haven't played their best game, but they don't need to be at their best to win tonight.