WEST LAFAYETTE – Before he began preparing for tonight's matchup, Purdue coach Matt Painter had never watched the tape of the Boilermakers' loss to Virginia in the Elite Eight last season. He marveled at the performances of Carsen Edwards and Ty Jerome in that game, but said it was likely he'd never watch the game again.
Tonight's game, though, Painter said he would watch Thursday morning.
It was that kind of night for the Boilermakers, who played about as well as this team is capable of playing, rolling through the best defense in country on the way to a rousing 69-40 victory. It was the first-ever Purdue win at Mackey Arena against a top five non-conference opponent and it was the first loss of the season for Virginia, which had come in 7-0 and absolutely stifling every other opponent on its schedule.
Sophomore Sasha Stefanovic was the star, scoring 20 points on 6-for-10 shooting from beyond the arc, and providing a terrific lift early in the game in his first career start. Allow me to use a sportswriter cliche: after a self-described poor performance in the Emerald Coast Classic, Stefanovic had that look in his eye tonight and he made a multitude of big shots for the Boilermakers.
"It's a confidence boost, not just for Sash(a) but our whole team," Jahaad Proctor said of Stefanovic's sharpshooting. "We'd been struggling to shoot as of lately and when Sash gets it going and then other people get it going it makes it easier. I want to thank Sash for that one."
Maybe even more impressive than Purdue's offensive performance – the Boilermakers scored 29 points more than Virginia had been giving up per game coming in – was the way they played on defense. The Cavaliers aren't a great offensive team, but Purdue gave them nothing tonight easy tonight. The rotations were terrific, there was a hand in the face on nearly every 2-point shot attempt and opportunities for easy baskets at the rim were next to non-existent. The Boilermakers have been a good defensive team all season, with the 16th-ranked scoring defense in the country, but tonight was as well as they've played all year. It's not often that defense is exciting to watch (in fact Virginia is one of the few teams that makes it so on a regular basis), but Purdue pulled that off tonight.
"Just holding them to 40 points, our effort on the defensive end was really good," Painter said. "The thing that was a little bit out of character for them was I didn't think we'd be able to turn them over. And we were able to do that. Sixteen turnovers for them was a lot of turnovers.
"I was proud of our guys. I thought we had a great effort across the board. Sometimes it's easier to scrap and fight when the ball's going in. We had some things go our way, but I liked our fight."
Purdue did indeed have plenty go its way, hitting 13 of 25 from beyond the arc. That outside onslaught would have been enough to knock Virginia on its heels, but the Boilermakers were able to combine that with a strong inside game. Bigs Trevion Williams and Matt Haarms started together for the first time this season as Purdue tried to counteract Virginia's length. The gambit worked. The pair played well together, battling for rebounds inside and giving the Boilermakers an outlet when they posted up near the end of the shot clock. Williams, who has only played 14 minutes per game this season, was especially strong in the second half, battling for every rebound and getting some powerful put-backs. He finished with six points, all after halftime, and seven rebounds. He had three of the Boilermakers' nine offensive boards by himself. Painter said the two-big lineup's usage will be matchup-based going forward, but he was also looking for a spark inside tonight. He pushed the right button.
"Both of them are good passers," the coach said of the big-man duo. "Trevion has really long arms. Matt at 7-3 can look over double(-team)s. ... We just needed a change from a lineup standpoint. I just thought we needed a little bit more of a punch. ... I thought with (Virginia's) two 7-footers (Mamadi Diakite and Jay Huff) that we matched up well with our size. It just made sense to do it. I thought we needed a lift."
After a couple of disappointing losses against solid teams early in the season, this was a huge win for the confidence of this Purdue team. Haarms, Stefanovic and Proctor were practically giddy in the postgame press conference, while also realizing they have to go out and back this up with more victories going forward. The only caveat is the Cavaliers missed plenty of open 3s and were without leading rebounder and third-leading scorer Braxton Key, a senior who might have settled things and stopped the game from getting out of hand. Regardless, it was the Boilermakers' night and that Elite Eight game, though it still hurts, feels like a long time ago.