By DOUG GRIFFITHS
ISL Assistant Editor
CHICAGO – Purdue was supposed to be a dangerous team in the Big Ten Tournament. So much for that.
The Boilermakers reverted back to tendencies they have shown throughout this disappointing season and were bounced by No. 10-seed Nebraska 57-55 in the opening round Thursday.
Purdue couldn’t hit its outside shots, missed free throws and didn’t get any kind of leadership from its veterans, let alone anyone else on the team against a team it had beaten 65-56 earlier in the season.
“Obviously, a very tough loss for us,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said. “I just thought Nebraska was a step quicker than us most of the night.”
The seventh-seeded Boilermakers came out flat from the beginning and were fortunate to trail just 30-28 at the break. Their lackluster play caught up with them to start the second stanza as the 10th-seeded Cornhuskers went on a 9-0 run in the first 2:43 and led 39-28 after guard Dylan Talley scored his first points of the game.
From that point, it was an uphill climb for Purdue. The Boilermakers trailed by 11 a few times and rallied to make it a one possession game with 3:20 to play.
The Boilermakers could’ve gotten even closer, but Sandi Marcius missed a pair of free throws, Terone Johnson missed one of two and Ronnie Johnson missed the front end of a one-and-one. Those failures at the charity stripe came in a span of 1:16 and were really costly.
Purdue trailed just 54-53 after D.J. Byrd buried his second 3-pointer of the game.
Nebraska left the door open for the seventh-seeded Boilermakers with poor free throw shooting of its own, hitting 3 of 7 in the game’s final 52.7 seconds. When Byrd put back a Ronnie Johnson missed three-pointer, Purdue was down 56-55 with 13 seconds remaining.
Nebraska’s Ray Gallegos missed 1 of 2 freebies at the other end, and the Boilermakers had a chance to tie or win it at the end.
With no timeouts remaining, Painter explained that the plan was to get Terone Johnson a good look off a screen so he would have a chance to hit one of his patented floaters in the lane. The screen wasn’t as good as it should’ve been. Still, Johnson drove and missed a contested mid-range jumper. He rebounded the miss, but missed again in the lane. Nebraska grabbed the rebound and time expired.
“We wanted him to get in the paint because we didn’t need a three,” explained Painter about the game’s final possession. “We didn’t get a good ball screen. You go back and watch the tape, he didn’t get a good ball screen right there. He got a contested shot.
“Obviously, he got it back and had another contested shot there. You would like to get a little better look. But we had the ball in the right guy’s hand.”
Johnson and the rest of his teammates found it very challenging to get into the lane and get pointblank looks.
To Nebraska’s credit, it clogged the lane, not allowing the Boilermakers room to operate. Its defensive strategy was aided by the fact that Purdue was miserable from distance, hitting just 2-of-12 three-point bombs.
“They guarded the ball screen a bit different than Wisconsin did,” said Ronnie Johnson, referring to Purdue’s upset win earlier this month in Madison. “They had a hard hedge, whereas against Wisconsin, you could get in the lane pretty easy. It was just kind of hard to get in there.”
“They packed it in,” Painter added. “You just have to show discipline and put them on defense and break them down.
“We didn’t do that. We were too eager. I didn’t think we did a good job of moving. I thought we had to move them more. Any time you move them more, you usually spread them out more. We just didn’t have good ball movement, we didn’t cut hard, we did too much watching. That’s something we really worked on this past month. It’s a shame that you get in a close game like that and you can’t do a better job of disrupting their offense.”
Another key stretch came around the midpoint of the second half. Purdue trailed by six and had four empty possessions, failing to cut into the deficit.
“We had two horrendous shots and two turnovers,” said Painter when asked about that critical juncture. “That was a key time of the game, even though we got back into the game and had a chance to win the basketball game. Those four possessions in a row really hurt us.”
The loss was especially difficult to swallow for a Purdue team that felt like it was playing its best basketball of the season.
Instead the Boilermakers now head home hoping that at 15-17, a postseason tournament – either the NIT or CBI – will come calling. Earlier this week, Painter said he wanted his team to keep playing regardless of what tournament it was in. After tonight’s game, he didn’t sound quite as convincing.
“It’s also one of those things where I want our guys to be in the right frame of mind,” said Painter, whose team sees its NCAA Tournament appearance streak stop at six in a row. “Because I want to do it, but I don’t play. So they can say what they want, but you’ve got to be able to give your word that you’re going to go out there, fight, take it serious and go out and try to win the game if you get that opportunity.”
Per usual, Byrd was saying all the right things after the loss.
“I always want to play some more games,” he said. “It would be great if we could.”
Byrd couldn’t find his shooting touch for most of the night until in the waning moments. He was 6-of-14 shooting from the floor, finishing with a team-high 15 points in what may turn out to be his final game in a Purdue uniform.
Joining Byrd in double figures were A.J. Hammons (11 points) and Ronnie Johnson (10).
Nebraska freshman Shavon Shields was the story in the first half as he scored 15 of his game-high 19 points. Shields had 13 points in the game’s first 10:48.
“He played like a senior,” said Painter about Shields’ performance.
Many of Shields buckets came in close range. All night long Purdue was terrible with its post defense and defending players cutting to the basket and allowing them get to the hole for easy looks.
Now, Shields and the Cornhuskers (15-17) advance to the quarterfinals where it will meet No. 2-seed Ohio State Friday. For Purdue, it will simply be a very long weekend, waiting to learn its fate late Sunday night.