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January 7, 2013

Needed: Mental toughness

The past four games, Purdue's crippling turnover woes have been curbed.

Its shot-selection, while not quite there yet, has improved, as well.

The next step for the Boilermakers then, according to Coach Matt Painter: Mental toughness.

That need was underscored by Purdue's 84-61 loss at Michigan State Saturday, a game in which the Boilermakers led by one point with 16 minutes left.

That was before Purdue encountered a slippery second half slope and did not handle it well, and got blown out because of it.

During a stretch in which Michigan State scored nine consecutive points from the foul line and saw center A.J. Hammons sent to the bench with foul trouble, Purdue unraveled.

"When we think things are going against us, instead of just having some mental toughness, fighting through it, making layups and making free throws, sticking with our defensive assignments and what we're supposed to do, we don't," Painter said Monday. "That's what we have to learn to do, to be more mentally tough in those stretches just to stay in the game. The game was won right then and there. They went on a run, they got emotional, they got offensive rebounds and they took those opportunities and made the most of them."

Painter pointed to several key instances that led to the final margin, highlighting missed free throws, a blown layup, a goal-tending call that didn't go in Purdue's favor and a few defensive breakdowns as examples of his team not handling adversity during that game's decisive sequence, a 21-4 Michigan State run that blew the game wide open.

The Boilermaker coach suggested that he took no exception to the technical foul called on guard Anthony Johnson, who was fouled driving to the basket, before a replay review revealed an elbow connecting with a Spartan player. A technical foul was assessed against Johnson.

"We get emotional and in that stretch right there, one of our guys drives to the basket and elbows their guy in the head and instead of us getting to the free throw line and maybe getting two points, it gets called on the ground," Painter said. "It's neither here nor there, but our guy hits him and it's a great call. They go down and shoot two free throws. That was a momentum swing."

Losing Hammons to fouls was far more important, though.

Purdue played Michigan State to a standstill in the time the 7-foot freshman was on the floor. He was called for his third foul at the 13-minute mark, after a defensive rebound.

"He had a couple calls (go against him) in the game, especially his third," Painter said. "That was not a foul, just to be frank. It was a poor call.

"It's unfortunate, but it's two-fold for him: He plays with his hands too much. We keep working with him to play with his feet and start the possession right and be in the right position and do his work early. I think if they're going to call those things on him, he's going to just have an unbelievable time on the offensive end, if they call the same things on the other guys. That's what gets to be difficult for the officials: What do they pick as a foul and what do they pick as not a foul with all that goes into post defense?"

Purdue saw its three-game winning streak snapped in a 23-point loss, though one in which the Boilermakers did show marked signs of improvement from where they were following a 4-6 start to the season.

After a competitive first half, Purdue opened the second on a 9-2 run to claim what turned out to be a short-lived.

That's when circumstance struck and the Spartans rolled.

"Obviously we have to take that and learn from that, but that's something we'll definitely have to learn to do in the future, to fight through adversity," guard Terone Johnson said. "The calls aren't always going to go our way, on both ends, but that isn't anything we can't get through to play hard the whole game. We have to control the things we can control."

Saturday's result aside, Purdue would seem to be in a better situation today than it was a few weeks ago.

"We've gotten a lot better," Terone Johnson said. "We've come together a lot more and also we've started doing the things on offense and defense that Coach wants instead of going away from that."

But there's obviously work still be done.

"The breakdowns we had against Michigan State, they're easily correctable," senior D.J. Byrd said. "It's one of those things where you have to play hard every play and focus on every possession. We gave up a layup here, a layup there, a wide-open three-pointer there, and all of a sudden it's a seven-point game after we'd had it tied up. Our guys are playing harder, but on top of playing harder, we have to keep moving the ball and taking the right shots. We've improved there, but we have to keep improving.

"Our younger guys are showing improvement in practicing, playing harder and keeping their energy up," Byrd said. "That's what we need right now. If we can defend and rebound against some of these teams we're going to be playing, that'll give us the best chance."

Painter on the apparent punch Michigan State Branden Dawson threw at Travis Carroll: "The Big Ten needs to handle that. I need to get our guys to make better decisions. We'll see when they make a ruling and comment on it at that time."

Painter said Big Ten associate commissioner Rick Boyages visited Purdue's locker room after the game to discuss the incident. The Purdue coach said he had not heard from the league as of Monday morning.

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo reportedly told media Monday that he does not anticipate there being any fallout from the much-discussed incident. Spartan officials told media during the weekend that camera angles other than the one widely available on-line show that Dawson did not throw a punch.

Copyright, Boilers, Inc. 2013. All Rights Reserved. Reproducing or using editorial or graphical content, in whole or in part, without permission, is strictly prohibited. E-mail GoldandBlack.com/Boilers, Inc.

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