CHAMPAIGN — Before Illinois’ perimeter-oriented offense produced its first basket from a non-big man here Wednesday night, nearly 12 minutes had elapsed and Purdue was doubling the Illini’s score, 20-10.
It looked dire for the home team, which was in serious need of a victory.
Somehow, Illinois wound up getting it, 66-57. Despite being without starting guards Rayvonte Rice and Aaron Cosby, both injured, and despite falling behind early and shooting 28.6 percent in the first half, the Illini (13-7, 3-4 Big Ten) scraped together enough offense to complement a large supply of defense — not to mention a healthy dose of the toughness coach John Groce always talks about.
Playing against the Boilermakers (11-8, 3-3) and their multiple seven-footers, Illinois won the rebounding battle 43-35. Eschewing the three-point shot throughout the second half, they put their heads down and drove, scoring 22 in the paint and going 21-for-24 from the foul line. The Illini also got five blocked shots from senior center Nnanna Egwu, who passed Deon Thomas for the school’s all-time lead in that category, with 179.
It was the sort of effort Groce hoped for when he made the call earlier this week for “no excuses.”
“I thought our kids really competed the last 28 minutes,” Groce said. “I thought our guys really played with great competitiveness and great toughness.”
It came from Kendrick Nunn, who started 0-for-7 from the floor but finished the first half with determination — scoring eight as the Illini led 32-30 — and ended with 14 points and a career-high seven rebounds. It came from 6-6 swingman Malcolm Hill, who led all scorers with 18 and closed the game for the Illini at one end while defending Purdue’s 7-0, 261-pound A.J. Hammons at the other. It came from Egwu, who added 11 points and seven boards to his personal block party.
And you’d better believe it came from Leron Black. At 6-7, the true freshman — nicknamed “Savage” by his teammates — played bigger than anyone on the floor, scoring 15 and ripping down 13 rebounds, both season highs. The season hasn’t been easy for Black, who has made a lot of the sort of mistakes most freshmen make if they’re good enough to be on the court. But he planted his flag in the lane and dared the Boilermakers to come take it.
“My momma, she didn’t raise no quitter,” Black said, “so I wasn’t going to quit.”
Purdue coach Matt Painter was duly impressed.
“I thought Leron Black was the best player on the floor,” he said. “I don’t think it was even close.”
So let’s take stock of things for a minute. No Tracy Abrams; the senior guard, a tenacious defender and penetrator, is out for the season with an ACL injury. No Rice, the team’s best and most physical player, who will miss at least a few more games after breaking a bone in his left hand. No Cosby, also a stoutly built guard and strong defender who scored 19 points in a victory last week at Northwestern. Yet the Illini are still ticking.
“We’ve got the players to do what we’ve got to do,” Egwu said.
Against Purdue, that meant closing the first half with an 8-0 spurt — including two fast-break finishes off steals and a Hill three-pointer before the buzzer — and then taking control down the stretch with a 12-3 run during which the Illini ramped up their effort and the Boilermakers couldn’t match it.
“I think they just played harder,” Painter said.
Sometimes, that goes a long way.