Come Monday, Purdue will almost certainly be No. 1 nationally, for the first time in its basketball history.
It almost let the moment slip away.
The second-ranked Boilermakers led Iowa by 19 midway through the second half Friday, but wound up having to survive an all-too-familiar Hawkeye surge to win 77-70. Iowa got within two with a little more than three minutes to play, but missing their final seven shots, as Purdue closed the game out with rebounding and free throws, Big Ten style.
“It (would be) special,” senior Trevion Williams said of Purdue’s presumed ascension to No. 1. “But we don’t want to settle for that. We want to build off that.
“Once we become No. 1, we want to stay No. 1.”
After playing perhaps the most pivotal individual role of the game, Mason Gillis chimed in.
“It’s great to be No. 1, but we want to win championships,” he said.
This was a “lesson” for Purdue.
“I told our team this is a really good learning (opportunity) for us,” Coach Matt Painter said. “Most times in basketball, when you learn these lessons, you lose.
“Hopefully we learned a hard lesson here while still winning.”
One of those lessons, not that it should have been a new one: Purdue simply must take better care of the basketball.
While a meeting between two of the best offenses in college basketball turned into a rockfight, it was the Boilermakers’ giveaways that kept Iowa — playing without budding star Keegan Murray — alive.
“We just have to fix the turnovers,” guard Jaden Ivey said, after scoring a game-high 19 points. “If we can do that, we’ll put ourselves in a good position.”
This was the ultimate reminder.
Purdue’s 17 turnovers led to 20 Hawkeye points.
The home team struggled badly with Iowa’s backcourt trapping, a failing that Painter assigned to everyone on the floor and not just the guards who were saddled with the turnovers.
“We have guys who their guy will leave them (to press) and they don’t move (for the ball),” Painter said.
It didn’t help that Isaiah Thompson was nursing an apparent hip issue suffered during a first-half fall that Painter suggested might have affected his ability to accelerate.
After a run of brilliance from Ivey seemingly signaled a blowout — Purdue led 63-44 with 9:54 left – things escalated quickly. Five Boilermaker turnovers followed, before the Hawkeyes started fouling out and missing shots, with Williams and Gillis dominating the defensive glass when it mattered most.
While Iowa finished 0-for-7, Williams grabbed four of his 18 rebounds in the final two minutes. With Iowa down just two, Gillis tied up Williams’ missed one-and-one, keeping possession, then was fouled on the boards on Williams’ miss that followed, sending him to the line for two key points. Gillis scored 12 points on just three field goal attempts.
“Toward the end of the game, we have to crack down on what we’re doing right and wrong,” Gillis said. “Less turnovers, more offensive rebounds, more defensive rebounds, stopping them from doing whatever they want to do. When we can finish a game, we have to finish a game. Hitting free throws, little things. That’s the biggest thing.”
HOW IT HAPPENED
Purdue wasn’t great on offense. Its standard has been elite, but the Boilermakers shot only 42 percent for the game, turned the ball over too much and didn’t have as much success as normal playing through the post or cleanly getting into halfcourt offense.
“What kind of team are we when our shots don’t fall?” Williams said. “That’s something we work on daily. What’s our identity? One thing you can control is your effort.”
While Iowa was blistering hot down the stretch — shooting 68 percent before the 0-for-7 finish — Purdue did get the stops and rebounds it needed to, after one of its better defensive halves of the season in the first. The Hawkeyes shot just 27 percent in the first 20 minutes and managed only 26 points.
Purdue’s defense still has a long way to go, Painter made clear afterward.
But the Boilermakers did win at the defensive end with the game — and No. 1 — on the line.
“As a coach, you want to get in as many close games as you can, if you can win ’em,” Painter said. “… If you can get in them and win, it really helps you. The end of the North Carolina game, the end of the Villanova game, the end of this game, all of them are different.
“We were able to get a couple stops, make a couple free throws and just weather the storm. For us, it helps because we’re going to get back in games like that, those pressure-cooker games, especially when you’ve had that lead. That happens in basketball a lot. You have that lead, and then the other team doesn’t feel (pressure) as much because you had that lead and let it get away.”
WHAT IT MEANS
It means Purdue’s good enough to win tough games without its offense performing at its highest level. It also means the Boilermakers got exposed in some areas and that they’re far from invincible, not that anyone ever should have felt that way.
Nevertheless, Purdue got it done, and will be No. 1.
“I felt like we got comfortable when we got up (big),” Williams said. “This is a lesson. A win is a win and we’re going to celebrate it, but the way we got the win, we want to build off it.”
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