Purdue 96, Illinois 88 (2OT): Andre Curbelo makes long-awaited return in instant classic
Is it Feb. 10 yet? That’s when the Illini and Boilermakers meet again.
CHAMPAIGN — Sometimes you win.
Sometimes you lose.
And sometimes both teams leave everyone happy to have been there. Those are the regular-season college basketball games to savor and remember.
Purdue and Illinois checked all the boxes in a double-overtime classic Monday at State Farm Center.
That the No. 4 Boilermakers won 96-88 and the No. 17 Illini took their first loss in Big Ten play were kind of just details. Of greater significance was the 50-minute joyride — yes, even the frustrating parts — that made it clear each of these teams is the real deal and that the Big Ten has plenty of strength at the top.
‘‘That was [bleeping] impressive,’’ Purdue coach Matt Painter said to Illinois coach Brad Underwood when it was over.
It was pretty bleeping exhausting, too.
Just ask Purdue’s Mason Gillis, Jaden Ivey and Sasha Stefanovic and Illinois’ Da’Monte Williams, Alfonso Plummer and Trent Frazier, each of whom played well more than 40 minutes — topped by 47:52 from Frazier, the heart and soul of his team.
Just ask Illini point guard Andre Curbelo, who hadn’t played in a game since Nov. 23, has practiced all of twice in nearly two months and was expected by Underwood to ease back in with six to eight minutes. Instead, the dazzling Curbelo — whose prolonged absence after a head injury in late October had all of Illini Nation speculating — went 25 minutes and scored 20 points to go with six rebounds, three assists, no turnovers and all kinds of flair.
This despite being described by his coach as being in ‘‘horrific shape, horrible shape’’ right now.
‘‘It’s nice to have an All-American guard find his way back into your program,’’ Underwood said.
Before the game, Underwood told Curbelo not to hurt the team with his poor conditioning or ‘‘foolish pride.’’ By the end of it, the return of a player who was every bit as promising as Ayo Dosunmu by the end of his freshman season was certain to be the hottest topic around the Big Ten.
‘‘He should’ve just stayed out,’’ Painter joked.
And maybe Illini star center Kofi Cockburn should’ve stayed in more than he did. To the enormous frustration of the home crowd, Cockburn was whistled for his third and fourth fouls during the first 2:17 of the second half. The Illini trailed 39-31 at the time after having been hit by a 17-0 Boilermakers run late in the first half.
It didn’t look good at all, not with Purdue’s 7-4 Zach Edey (20 points) having his way down low, Stefanovich (22 points, five threes) locked in and a heaping plateful of nothing in the home-cooking department from the refs.
Underwood alternated between blowing fuses and blowing gaskets. His players were visibly frustrated, too. The Orange Krush student section, meanwhile, hurled personal insults at the refs — and the Boilers — as though their grades depended on it.
But back the Illini repeatedly charged from there, with Plummer (24 points, six threes) taking turns with Curbelo, Frazier and even seldom-used frontcourt reserve Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk as the team’s anchor in a tug-of-war that was agonizingly long and deeply compelling.
Curbelo led a comeback from a seven-point deficit in the final two minutes of regulation to force the first overtime. He found Plummer for a layup that forced the second overtime. We can’t be certain Williams actually defended several Boilers at once for much of the game, but it sure looked like it.
The Boilers — huge up front, ultra-efficient on offense and stacked with veterans and depth — would have buried a lesser opponent without its best player for 30 minutes of game time. No, it wasn’t Cockburn’s night. It easily could be argued the refs gave the 7-footer the short end. But Underwood was correct about this: Both teams grew from the experience of this game.
So savor it. And remember it.
Purdue is 15-2 overall and 4-2 in the Big Ten after ending a three-game losing streak to Illinois. The Illini are 13-4 and 6-1 — a half-game ahead of Wisconsin for first place, with the Badgers visiting Northwestern on Tuesday.
‘‘They’re going to be a really hard out in our league,’’ Painter said of the Illini, ‘‘and they’re going to be hard to beat in the NCAA Tournament.’’
But first things first: Is it Feb. 10 yet? That’s when the Illini visit Purdue. And how about a Game 3 during the conference tournament in Indianapolis?
The more times like Monday, the better.