WEST LAFAYETTE – It turns out the key to beating a pressure defense is throwing the ball inside to a player so tall, the pressure can't bother him.
For Purdue, that player was Matt Haarms, and he was magnificent.
The 7-foot-3 Haarms dominated a smaller Illinois team in all phases Wednesday, scoring a career-high 21 points on 8-for-8 shooting from the field, adding a career-high 10 rebounds and equaling a career-best with five blocks to lead the No. 14 Boilermakers to a 73-56 victory in front of an announced crowd of 14,804 at Mackey Arena.
The win was the fourth in a row and 15th in the last 17 games for Purdue (21-7, 14-3 Big Ten). The Boilers moved into a tie with Michigan State for the conference lead with three games to go.
Haarms said he knew coming in that the Illini (10-18, 6-11) would be aggressive defensively and try to front the post with 6-9 freshman center Giorgi Bezhanishvili. That opened up the lob over the top, which became a go-to play for the Boilermakers.
“They know they don't have the height, and that's the reason they're fronting so aggressively,” said Haarms, who had a pair of large scratches on his neck as proof of the physicality of the game. “They know they can't stop a guy when they're playing behind, they can't stop a bigger guy in the post, so they have to front, and we were able to exploit that today.”
One of those lobs over the top came with 6:17 remaining. Nojel Eastern lofted a perfect pass from the top of the key over the whole defense, and Haarms was able to clear a wide swath under the basket for an uncontested two-handed dunk. The play completed a game-turning 12-0 run that turned a tie game into a 60-48 Boilermakers lead.
Carsen Edwards, who scored 23 points, had five during that run, including a strong layup through contact, which he punctuated with a muscle flex at the retreating Illinois front line.
“I was just hoping I could beat my man off the dribble,” Edwards said of his drives to the rim. “(The Illini) have heavy help, they actually don't even look at the ball at times, they get on top of their man and just stay locked in on their man.
“So once you beat them off the dribble, their help is either late or they don't have help. I just tried to beat them off the dribble and make a play after that.”
Grady Eifert, a former Bishop Dwenger forward, played a key role early in the second half, twice leaking out behind the defense on misses for wide open layups off of pretty outlet passes. The senior, playing the first of his final two games at Mackey, finished with 11 points and six rebounds, including a clinching 3-pointer in the final minutes.
Nojel Eastern added 14 points, six rebounds and six assists, while Ryan Cline chipped in eight rebounds and seven assists.
Purdue improved to 14-0 at home this season and can complete a perfect season in West Lafayette with a win over Ohio State on Saturday.
Note: Matt Painter was named one of the 15 finalists for the Naismith National Coach of the Year Award on Wednesday. Painter is one of three Big Ten coaches on the list, joining Michigan State's Tom Izzo and Michigan's John Beilein.