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No. 8 Purdue rallies past Indiana 69-67 ahead of tournament play

Purdue guard Eric Hunter Jr. (2) reacts after scoring during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Indiana, Saturday, March 5, 2022, in West Lafayette, Ind. (AP Photo/Doug McSchooler)

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. (WISH) — One game official was already back near the referee locker room, and Indiana was still on the floor at Mackey Arena looking for a foul call. 

The official eventually returned to the floor for the final 0.3 seconds to run off the clock, and any hope of Indiana making the 68-team NCAA Tournament field without at least one victory at this coming week’s Big Ten Conference Tournament in Indianapolis. 

Was there a foul that was missed on Xavier Johnson’s shot attempt in the closing seconds? Johnson walked away after the Hoosiers’ seventh loss over their past nine games believing so. 

“I tried to draw the foul,” Johnson said. “I felt someone grab the back of my jersey so I thought it was a foul. But, it is cool, he didn’t call it. I’ll live another day.” 

No. 8 Purdue didn’t stomp the Hoosiers as many predicted leading up to Saturday afternoon instead relying on stellar play from two guards not named Jaden Ivey (10 points) to avoid a significant upset with a 69-67 victory.

Boilers seniors Eric Hunter Jr. (17 points) and Sasha Stefanovic (15 points) played like Saturday were their last precious minutes on the floor at Mackey Arena. 

Hunter Jr. moved without hesitation and made a team-high 7 field goals. Stefanovic nailed a trio of three-pointers and left Purdue Head Coach Matt Painter at the postgame podium endorsing the fifth-year senior from Crown Point, Ind. as an example of why redshirting as a freshman is a wise decision.   

“I have been here five years and it has been sold out every single game pretty much,” Stefanovic said. “Against IU, it is always a little bit louder and there is just a different energy, a buzz in the area. It is awesome. I really can’t think of a better way to go out here at Mackey (Arena) than have that crowd and this result.”

Purdue (25-6, 14-6) finishes the Big Ten regular-season arguably as the most complete team in college basketball’s best conference, but they have lacked the knockout punch down the stretch. 

Winning on Saturday improves the Boilers’ record in games decided by five points or less to 3-5 on the season. Painter admitted postgame his defense still “isn’t where it needs to be” heading into postseason play. 

“As a coach you are always greedy,” Painter said. “You want to be better. I thought we put ourselves in a really good position in that second half after we put ourselves in a good position in the first half. We just had some extreme runs there for and against us… just trying to get consistency. I know we are 25-6 and we are going to be second or third in our league going into the Big Ten Tournament. I feel like if we don’t turn the ball over, I like our chances.”

“Doesn’t mean we can’t get beat in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament or the first round of the NCAA Tournament. But, when we take care of the basketball, we give ourselves a pretty good chance to win the game.”

Purdue wraps the regular season with remarkable achievements that highlight sustained success of the Painter era, including a 9th 25+ win season under his watch.

The crowd on hand for Mackey Arena’s 41st consecutive sellout was a major factor, and basketball aside, the best moment of the day arrived when Purdue University President Mitch Daniels, standing at mid-court, recognized two students from Ukraine.

A standing ovation and cheers erupted immediately.

For Indiana, the second half play from the trio of Johnson (18 points, 12 assists), Miller Kopp (14 points), and Trayce Jackson-Davis (15 points) is a sample of what Hoosier fans envisioned heading into Big Ten play this season.   

Head Coach Mike Woodson called his pick-and-roll game between Johnson and Jackson-Davis the best of the entire season, with Kopp trying his season-best hitting four critical threes. 

Outside of Kopp, Woodson’s other shooters went 1-14 on three-point attempts. It is a broken record that dates back through the entirety of the Archie Miller era in Bloomington.

Indiana needs three-point shooters and they simply can’t find them.

Still, the Hoosiers refused to go away Saturday, climbing back into the game after a pair of 13-point deficits. 

The effort, especially defensively, was elite. Woodson’s man-to-man defense held Purdue to a season-worst 39% shooting from the field. 

“We have been good defensively all year,” Woodson said. “That has basically set the table in terms of the season that we have had. We have had our ups and downs but defensively it has put us in a position to compete and win games every night. But, to come out on the wrong end and lose a game like this is tough. I thought they got all of the 50/50 balls. That was a big discussion before the game. When you are on the road you have to win the 50/50 game. They out-toughed us in that area tonight.”

Indiana will play in the No. 8 – No. 9 Big Ten Tournament second-round game Thursday at 11:30 A.M. at Gainbrdige Fieldhouse. 

If Michigan loses to No. 23 Ohio State Sunday, the Hoosiers will see Wolverines Head Coach Juwan Howard Thursday as he makes his return from a five-game suspension for fighting after a loss last month at Wisconsin. If Michigan wins and Michigan State falls to Maryland, Woodson’s club will see Tom Izzo and the Spartans Thursday. 

Either way, it is a must-win game for the storied program which hasn’t played in an NCAA Tournament game since 2016.

“I think we know what is at stake,” Kopp said. “We just talked about it in the locker room. We have to win. That is what it is. But, going into the Big Ten Tournament we feel like we can beat any team in the country and any team in the Big Ten. Whether we finish the games or not, we believe we know we can beat any team that is going into the same tournament that we are going into. That is our mindset and we are hungry. That is for sure.”

Indiana is 13-23 lifetime at the Big Ten Tournament. Two victories certainly puts IU into the NCAA Tournament field. Just one? That will make for a pressure-packed Selection Sunday in Bloomington. 

“Only time will tell, we still have to take it one game at a time and just see how it goes for us,” Woodson said.