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January 15, 2014

Purdue blows past Illini

Purdue-Illinois box score

With the game hanging in the balance in Champaign Wednesday night, Ronnie Johnson broke Purdue out of its doldrums from three-point range, burying a triple with five-and-a-half minutes left.

Next time down, the Boilermaker point followed a ball screen and dribbled into right flank around the Illini basket, looking for a shot.

Instead, he found Kendall Stephens in the right corner. The freshman sharp-shooter buried another triple, sparking the wave Purdue rode to a 66-58 victory, its first road win of the Big Ten season.

"I used that ball screen and drove it a little bit to see if I could make that shot, that floater," Ronnie Johnson said. "But I saw Kendall wide-open in the corner. When I see him open, I have to get him the ball. He's a great shooter.

"I think that was the dagger of the game. Those were big shots. With Kendall, I'll pass that ball to him every single time."

Coming into this season, Purdue wanted to improve its shooting, its shooting in all its forms.

In the final five-and-a-half minutes in the State Farm Center, it was about as good as it gets.

The back-to-back threes swung the scoreboard in Purdue's favor, finishing off a game in which the Boilermakers rebounded their way to victory, bludgeoning one of the Big Ten's fiercest rebounding teams on the boards.

The foul line kept the scoreboard in Purdue's corner.

Terone Johnson made two free throws with 1:22 remaining; Ronnie Johnson was 4-of-4 in the final 27 seconds.

Ronnie Johnson had been in such a position before, but late misses at West Virginia and against Nebraska Sunday kept games closer than they needed to be.

No such issues this time.

"I just focused more down the stretch," he said. "I had to put them in. I never try to back away from (being at) the line."

Ronnie Johnson made clutch plays down the stretch for the Boilermakers; A.J. Hammons was the game's most influential player throughout.

"He's the best big man in the league," Stephens said, "and I'm glad he's on my team."

The Purdue 7-footer led all scorers with 17 points, including a putback in the final two minutes that preceded one of his three blocks at the other end, each play as important as the other.

He loomed large on the glass, where Purdue dominated to the tune of a 42-28 margin.

Illinois outrebounded Purdue 21-19 in the first half.

In the second half, the Boilermakers got just about everything, tripling Illinois up on the glass, 23-7.

"That was the key to the game. We outrebounded them by 16 in the second half, and that was the game," Coach Matt Painter said. "... They fly in there and crash (the boards) and we wanted to turn that on them and fly in there and be able to get rebounds ourselves and we did that. In the second half, we were great. It was our best rebounding performance of the year. And it was the difference in the game."

Purdue grabbed 16 offensive rebounds, five by Hammons.

"At the end of the day," Illinois coach John Groce said, "it comes down to the backboard."

For Purdue, it came down to toughness.

Purdue showed it, both physical toughness in its rebounding and mental toughness in its ability to play through first-half foul trouble for Ronnie Johnson; second-half foul trouble for Hammons; and a 14-2 Illinois run to close the first half, a burst brought on by Purdue taking ill-advised threes and a sequence that turned the game on its side after the Boilermakers had claimed a healthy eight-point lead.

The Boilermakers played through adversity, through some difficult situations they've not exactly thrived in at times before.

"Everybody showed up to play today," Ronnie Johnson said. "… We were looking like a family out there, all sharing the ball. It was a great feeling.

"Everybody brought intensity and stayed composed when they took the lead. We came out of halftime with a blast. We kept fighting and getting defensive stops."

And rebounds, a charge led by Hammons but contributed to by all.

"I was just trying to block out," Hammons said, "and luckily (Basil Smotherman) and Errick Peck were able to get to a lot of the rebounds I couldn't get to."

Smotherman and Peck combined for 11 boards between them.

Stephens added nine points, on three threes. Purdue was 1-of-11 from long distance in the first half, 3-of-8 in the second.

Jay Simpson, playing in his hometown of Champaign, was excellent coming off the bench, with seven points and five boards in just 13 minutes.

Purdue played maybe its best defensive game of the season, holding Illinois to 38.5-percent shooting and keeping Big Ten leading scorer Rayvonte Rice to just one second-half point.

The Boilermakers gashed Illinois on repeat opportunities.

Purdue was credited with 17 "second-chance" points to Illinois' five.

"We knew they were the best offensive rebounding team in the league and we prepared like that in practice," Stephens said. "Jay and A.J. took to the heart what the coaches were saying about getting a body on them and the whole team did a great job."

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