WEST LAFAYETTE – Purdue knew it had to be better tonight and from the opening tip, the Boilermakers played like they knew a better performance was needed than the one that led to relatively narrow wins over Valparaiso and Indiana State in recent games.
Purdue came out against Ohio State with as much intensity on defense as we've seen from Matt Painter's team all season. The Buckeyes, playing without leading scorer and rebounder E.J. Liddell, were knocked on their heels in the early going and missed four of their first five shots. More than a few times, Purdue bodied up on defense and forced the ball to be reversed, leading to the Boilermaker bench getting on its feet and applauding enthusiastically.
That's the type of want-to that it will take to win in the Big Ten this season. But that intensity and desire has to be matched with execution and in the early part of the game Purdue didn't execute well enough. The Boilermakers, pressured by Ohio State's guards on the perimeter, turned the ball over four times in the first four minutes and seven times in the half, leading to 11 Ohio State points. The Buckeyes also eventually found their footing on offense and made seven out of eight field goal attempts during one stretch to go in front. Down the stretch, however, Purdue reigned in the turnovers and got a few of its own to re-take the lead. At halftime, the Boilers are in front 38-33.
It's clear that Purdue's advantage in this game lies inside and the Buckeyes know it. Trevion Williams and Zach Edey have both faced double teams whenever they've caught the ball and that has given them opportunities to find open shooters and cutters. Luckily for Purdue, Williams is one of the best passing big men in college basketball and he found open cutters for layups on back-to-back possessions midway through the half to stem an Ohio State run. He later added another beautiful pass behind his head to Mason Gillis for a wide-open layup. His passing ability is special and he has six points, five rebounds and four assists.
Edey has missed a couple of shots from in close, but the Buckeyes are clearly terrified of letting him go one-on-one against one of their undersized bigs and when he has opportunities in the second half, he should be able to find shooters. The big 7-foot-4 freshman has also been able to avoid fouls for the most part. He has just one at halftime and it was a ticky-tack call on the defensive end. That's significant for his development.
In total, Purdue is leading the rebounding battle 18-11, another example of how the Boilermakers' size is limiting Ohio State's opportunities on offense. The Buckeyes have just one second-chance point.
In fact, Purdue has done a good job as a team of defending without fouling. The Buckeyes are No. 3 in the country in free throws made per game with 21, but at halftime are just 4 of 5 at the line, while Purdue is 11 for 11. That's another credit to Purdue's discipline on the defensive end (and possibly a sign of how much the Buckeyes miss Liddell). That defensive performance was how Purdue was able to regain the lead at 24-22 with 6:30 left in the half despite going through a 1-for-9 stretch from the field.
With Purdue winning on free throws and the glass and Ohio State winning the turnover battle, the difference so far has been Sasha Stefanovic, the redshirt junior Purdue guard. Stefanovic is 2 for 3 from beyond the arc and has 10 points, including a 3-pointer from NBA range that knotted the score at 22 when it seemed as though the Buckeyes might take control of the game. Stefanovic's hot shooting is huge because it might make Ohio State think twice about doubling the post. The Buckeyes can't defend everything; Purdue's roster is well-constructed in that way.
The Boilermakers have looked like a young team finding their way for much of the season, tonight they've found a formula that seems to work: intense defense and strong interior play, combined with some outside shooting prowess. If they can avoid turning the ball over in the second half, a huge Big Ten season-opening win is there for the taking.