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March 23, 2010

Bench stands tall

Coach Matt Painter wasn't exaggerating when he said Sunday that his bench "saved" the Boilermakers in their NCAA Tournament second-round win over Texas A&M in Spokane, Wash.

While Chris Kramer's game-winning shot and JaJuan Johnson's blocks won't soon be forgotten around Purdue, it was the contributions of reserves D.J. Byrd, Ryne Smith and Patrick Bade - especially in the first half - that were a difference in the game.

It was a huge weekend for Byrd and Smith in particular, after the two reclaimed major minutes after seeing their opportunities dwindle in the back half of the regular season, before Robbie Hummel's injury changed everything.

Byrd enjoyed his best game of the season vs. Texas A&M offensively, scoring 10 points on 4-of-5 shooting, 2-for-2 from three-point range. The difference between this game and his 11-point outing against Minnesota in the Big Ten Tournament was that against A&M, his productivity came in minutes that mattered.

His first-half minutes against A&M were especially important in that Kramer picked up two early fouls and had to sit.

The second of Byrd's three-pointers Sunday capped Purdue's 17-2 second-half run, which turned an 11-point deficit into a four-point lead. Less than two minutes earlier, Smith buried a three, his third of the weekend after a 16-shot, nearly three-month dry spell.

"When we were down 11," Byrd said. "I turned to Ryne and said, 'We've got to bring energy. We can do this, knock down a couple shots and get us back in this game.'

"We really stepped it up on defense and I think that energy was brought to the offensive end. Ryne hit a shot and I hit a shot and I think that helped bring us back into the game."

Byrd admits his confidence wavered some as he endured a stretch of 13 games in which he didn't play more than four minutes a single time, sitting out nearly half of them altogether.

But the rookie's opportunity came with his team helplessly behind in the Big Ten Tournament against Minnesota. Now, perhaps his play that day serves as the silver lining to a hideous game that you'd never thought would have produced one.

"In the back of your mind, it does (impact your confidence) a little bit," Byrd said. "But I've had to keep working and mentally stay on the ball. It paid off."

Smith's story mirrors Byrd's.

By hitting three of the four three-pointers he shot in Spokane - he was 2-for-2 vs. Siena, 1-for-2 against A&M - the sophomore put behind him a slump that dated back to Jan. 5.

Smith said his confidence dipped some, too, when things weren't going so well, but he credits preparation for turning things around, at least with his shooting.

"I just got in the gym, got extra shots up and they started falling," Smith said. "Hopefully it keeps up.

"It's preparation, getting ready to shoot. In practice, I'm trying to shoot at game speed instead of just lolly-gagging around."

But Smith didn't just contribute against A&M with the shot he made.

Not exactly known as an imposing presence on the boards, Smith battled 6-foot-8, 250-pound Bryan Davis for a defensive rebound with about 40 seconds to go in overtime, forcing a tie-up.

"I just tried to grab and not let go," Smith joked.

The possession arrow gave the ball back to A&M, but had Davis come down with it cleanly, he might have had a high-percentage putback opportunity, maybe even yet another dunk.

Johnson blocked Davis' shot after the re-set and Purdue took possession and ultimately won the game on [Kramer's driving layup with 4.2 seconds left.

It's difficult to quantify Bade's contribution against A&M statistically, because he had none, beside his two fouls. But he played important minutes early after Johnson picked up two quick fouls.

It might be significant to note that in Bade's 13 minutes, nearly double his season average, the Boilermakers outscored the Aggies by two points, without one of its best players on the floor.

"I think (the bench) helped pick our starters up," Smith said, "then they finished it for us."


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