CHAMPAIGN, Illinois – Purdue's focus coming into this game was defense. In that area, the Boilermakers were much better in the first half than they've been in previous games. It was on offense where the Boilers floundered and it's because of a lack of offensive production that they're losing 33-23 at halftime.
The early minutes of the game were when Purdue had a chance to put Illinois into a big hole and the Boilers were unable to do it. The Fighting Illini struggled shooting the ball in the early minutes, in part thanks to some swarming Purdue defense, and the Boilermakers took an early lead, but they also missed some open outside shots and a couple of attempts around the rim. By the under-16 media timeout, Purdue led 7-4, but the teams were combining to shoot just 25% from the field.
Illinois is too good of an offensive team to be held down completely for very long and the Fighting Illini slowly began to assert their presence as the half wore on. Ayo Dosunmu scored a couple of times around the rim and Kofi Cockburn put a couple of post touches through the hoop and within a few minutes Illinois had a 14-2 run and 16-9 lead. This was one of the worst offensive stretches of the season for the Boilermakers. Over a 7:44 span, they missed 14 of 15 attempts. The misses came from all over the floor. Mason Gillis missed a couple of open 3s; Trevion Williams, coming off a terrific game against Rutgers was stifled around the rim most of the half by Cockburn, who made everything extremely difficult for the Purdue center. Williams talked before the game about having a fight against the Illinois big man and he didn't back down from the challenge, but Cockburn certainly got the better of the exchange in the first half, though Williams scored on a couple of post touches late in the half to salvage something from the performance.
The best stretches for Purdue came when Cockburn was off the floor, which is when coach Matt Painter put Boiler freshman Zach Edey into the game. Edey provided some valuable minutes guarding Illinois backup Giorgi Bezhanishvili, defending without fouling and forcing the Illinois center into a couple of difficult shots. Late in the half, the 7-foot-4 rookie got his first shot at guarding Cockburn and got a block. Purdue is doubling the post almost every time Cockburn gets the ball, which has been relatively effective. Edey had a couple of big baskets to stop Illini runs, as well. He finished the first half with four points and four rebounds and kept Purdue from being run off the glass entirely. Williams had six points on 3 for 9 from the field, while Cockburn had six points and seven rebounds.
Late in the half, Brandon Newman had a couple of nice baskets in a row – a driving layup and a 3-pointer that rattled through – to push Purdue over 25% shooting. At halftime, the Boilers are hitting 31%, including 3 of 7 from 3 and the Fighting Illini, one of the best offensive teams in the country, are sitting at 45% and 3 of 9 from beyond the arc, thanks to a late surge that pushed their lead to 13. The Purdue defense has been good enough to win this game, but the offense has not held up its end of the bargain. If Williams can get going in the second half, the Boilermakers have a shot in this one. It's been encouraging also to see that Purdue has maintained its energy despite not shooting well, an area that had been an issue for most of this season.
In less positive news, Gillis collided with Illinois guard Da'Monte Williams on a close-out in the final minutes of the half and limped off the floor, seemingly in significant pain. That's a situation to monitor in the second half.