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Again drawing opponent's best, Purdue narrowly escapes disaster at Rutgers

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PISCATAWAY, N.J. — As reigning Big Ten champion, Purdue figured this season it might stare down the hardest punches opponents could throw.

But with every game the third-ranked Boilermakers have won — and it's now 19 straight — and every media mention of national scope they’ve earned about No. 1 seeds and such things, the punches seem to be getting harder and harder.

Whether Purdue matched Rutgers’, and Corey Sanders’, best effort Saturday afternoon in a harrowing 78-76 averting of disaster or just beat it doesn’t matter all that much.

What does matter is that these Boilermakers have wobbled, but never fallen.

When Purdue beat Rutgers on Jan. 3 in Mackey Arena, the Scarlet Knights scored 51 points, 31 fewer than the home team.

Today, they scored 49.

In the second half.

That’s more points in 20 minutes against Purdue than Rutgers scored in 40 in losses to Ohio State (46), Michigan (47) and Penn State (43).

And it’s the continuation of a trend in which Purdue opponents — Michigan, Maryland and now Rutgers, the latter being the league’s worst offensive team by a significant margin — have went off in second halves.

"We're going to get everybody's best shot," senior Dakota Mathias said. "We're at the top of the Big Ten right now. We just got a Big Ten road win. We're happy about that."

This time, it was Sanders, the Scarlet Knight guard who went for 31 points. And Geo Baker made a pair of shot-clock-beating jumpers in the second half and made six of his nine shots, finishing with 16. Both of them took — and made — the sort of "tough, contested, pull-up" shots Coach Matt Painter said he wanted them taking.

"When you have guys like Sanders and Baker, they're very capable of hitting shots like that," Mathias said.

Then, he smiled.

"That many in a row, and that consistently," he said, "you just have to tip your hat to them."

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And Rutgers flipped the script on Purdue from the first meeting, dominating the glass, 37-25 in the rebounding column, with offensive rebounds keeping this game within striking distance in the final few minutes.

By most any measure, this was the best Rutgers could throw at Purdue, and it was nearly enough to pull the upset of the college basketball season and deal the Boilermakers a wicked blow to their hopes for a No. 1 seed to the NCAA Tournament, not to mention the Big Ten-race implications that hung in the balance in those final minutes, as well, particularly as the Ohio State-Michigan State looms this week.

It was nearly enough.

Nearly.

Same as it was for Michigan, same as it was for Indiana, and for Maryland. Purdue’s been proven lately to be beatable, yet no one can beat it.

On this day, it bled, but never bled out, as Rutgers erased a 15-point first-half deficit to trail by just one with a little less than 12-and-a-half minutes left.

It never tied or led from that point on.

After Shaquille Doorson dunked an offensive rebound — one of Rutgers’ 15 offensive boards and two of its 14 second-chance points — Isaac Haas answered with a dunk and Ryan Cline made a three.

After Rutgers cut it back to one with exactly eight minutes to play, P.J. Thompson buried a three, Purdue generated some stops and Vincent Edwards — in the midst of a brilliant game in the face of illness — scored off an assist from Carsen Edwards.

Purdue led by seven with two minutes left, but while Rutgers kept making shots the statistics said they shouldn’t be making, the Boilermakers closed the game out at the foul line.

The final score showed a two-point win, but only because Baker made a jumper at the buzzer. Carsen Edwards’ two clutch free throws seconds earlier had sealed it.

Despite not practicing the past two days and despite the fact he was still vomiting as of Purdue’s arrival in New Jersey — his illness remains a bit of an unknown, he said — Vincent Edwards led Purdue with 18 points, eight rebounds and seven assists.

He's missed every three he's taken the past two games, because he's sick, Matt Painter said, making his performance at Rutgers look borderline heroic, especially considering how close the game was.

Edwards was asked afterward if he has his "legs" under him. His response: "Not really, no."

"It's the little things that bother me," he said. "There's times where it's, 'If I felt just a little bit better, I could have gotten this rebound or done that.' Those are the things that kill me, but at the end of the day, if I'm going to be out there, I can't make any excuses. I have to keep going."

Mathias added 16 points, surpassing the 1,000-point mark for his career. Carsen Edwards scored 13 and Thompson finished with 12.

It was a difficult game for Haas, who finished with an uncharacteristic seven on 2-of-5 shooting, with three turnovers and no assists, the latter being a category that’s become relevant to him during his strong senior season.

It was a highly physical game, Purdue collectively said, and Rutgers fought Haas.

“Not everybody has the bodies to do that,” Painter said. “They do.”

It wasn't just Haas that had a fight on their hands.

"It's tough when you're getting everybody's best look night in and night out," Thompson said. "You're not going to win every game by 20, 25. It doesn't matter if you're at the top of your league or No. 3 in the country, on the road, you're going to get everybody's best shot."

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