WEST LAFAYETTE – Matt Painter wanted better defensive execution and energy. He wanted better play when the Boilermakers have a lead. The Purdue coach wanted his team to be more fundamental. He got all of that and more in the first half against Nebraska, one of the Boilermakers' best stretches of the season against a high-major opponent.
At halftime of its first game in six days, the seventh-ranked Boilers lead the visiting Cornhuskers 48-33, thanks in large part to an at-times stifling defense that forced 12 turnovers and limited Nebraska star Bryce McGowens to five points on 2 for 6 from the field. After struggling to put together a really good defensive performance for most of the season, the Boilers found their edge on that end of the floor early tonight, getting up and defending aggressively on the perimeter, getting their hands in passing lanes and making life miserable for any Nebraska guard who ventured inside the 3-point line.
The defense led to offense: Purdue rolled up a 13-0 advantage in points off turnovers and then pushed the ball out in transition every time it got a live-ball takeaway (which was often). The Boilers only had four fastbreak points, but they got the ball to the rim on the break so often in the early going that they reached the bonus barely six minutes into the game and eventually shot 10 free throws in the half, compared to three for Nebraska.
Purdue's most impressive stretch of the half came in the opening eight minutes, when it raced out to a 23-4 lead. Jaden Ivey, who led all scorers with 14 points on 4 of 7 from the field and 4 for 4 at the foul line, capped the early spurt with a flying putback dunk off a missed fastbreak layup for Mason Gillis. Ivey slammed the ball home with two-handed authority and then, as the roof nearly collapsed around him, shouted at the top of his lungs at the Boiler student section, which roared in return. It was one of two hyper-emotional moments for Ivey in the half (the other came after he drilled a 3 to put Purdue up 17-2) and he clearly came into this game with a little extra juice.
The rest of the half was not quite as dominant, though Nebraska has not really closed the gap to the point it feels like it could win. The Cornhuskers have avoided getting completely run off the court mostly on the strength of a run of three 3s in a five-minute stretch midway through the half, but they still haven't gotten almost anything going to the rim and they have been almost completely unable to slow down Purdue's offense. It turns out the No. 1 offense in the country (by Ken Pomeroy's efficiency rankings) can score relatively easily against one of the worst scoring defenses in Division I basketball. Who knew?
Purdue should win this game and it very likely will, but Painter won't be happy with just any victory. After racing out to a 19-point lead, the Boilermakers played a relatively mediocre rest of the half defensively and again struggled on the defensive glass, giving up six offensive rebounds to the Cornhuskers. Yes, Purdue is the much better team and it showed it for about eight minutes. Since then, the Huskers have hung in and have played well enough to be pesky. Purdue could prove those early minutes weren't a mirage by putting together a dominant second half.