EAST LANSING, Mich. – Purdue got it done.
After coming up short in two straight road games against top 25 opponents last week, after having to deal with a canceled game earlier this week, after a bad practice Wednesday and after a dismal first-half offensive performance, the Boilermakers played their best half of the season in the second half and Trevion Williams knocked in an eight-foot floater with four seconds remaining to send Purdue to a hard-fought 55-54 road win over No. 23 Michigan State at the Breslin Center.
The victory is Purdue's first on the road this season after four straight defeats and the Boilermakers' first true signature victory with this new crop of young players. Although it was Williams' 26 points (24 in the second half) and nine rebounds that carried the day, this is the type of game youthful, growing teams need to win to believe that they can do it again and again. Purdue had been close several games in a row against good teams and tonight felt like a breakthrough.
"Just a good road win for us," coach Matt Painter said. "We didn't shoot the ball well, we didn't play well in the first half, too many breakdowns, but any time you can find a way to win, no matter how ugly it is, you're just hoping you can build confidence for your team, especially against a program like Michigan State. ... Our guys showed some intestinal fortitude."
What made this game feel different for Purdue was a certain toughness, especially in big moments down the stretch, that hasn't been there most of the last two seasons. The Boilermakers got more than their share of 50-50 balls all night long, including two huge ones in the final 15 seconds: Eric Hunter Jr.'s deflection of an inbounds pass off Michigan State's Rocket Watts for a turnover with the Boilermakers trailing by two and Zach Edey's and Mason Gillis's dives on the floor for an offensive rebound after Williams missed a potential game-tying free throw. It was those type of plays that Purdue made far more of than Michigan State, a rare feat for a team this young. Painter has talked all season about his team growing out of some immaturity and it might have done so tonight.
"The whole thing that happened with Eric getting the steal (on the inbounds pass) as Brandon (Newman) was denying, normally we're terrible at denying there," Painter said of the Michigan State turnover with 10 seconds remaining. "We're not a pressing team so when we go and say, 'Hey, don't let them catch,' somebody lets them catch. ... Then the offensive rebound, Mason and Zach were very, very active and kept it alive and got the jump ball."
That activity and awareness helped the Boilermakers outrebound Michigan State 37-31, 16-7 on the offensive end, holding the Spartans to just six second-chance points. It helped that Purdue ratcheted up the defensive intensity in the second half, limiting MSU to 22.2% shooting after halftime and keeping the hosts without a field goal for more than 12 minutes as the comeback raged.
Of course, Williams was the biggest reason the comeback was possible. After an abysmal first half for Purdue – 16 points, 0 for 12 from 3-point range – Williams was the team's wake-up call after halftime, scoring again and again in close and demanding the ball on nearly every possession down the stretch. Michigan State even tried to double-team him or at least show a double-team and he fought through those and scored anyway. Going to Williams for the winning shot, even when everyone in the arena knew he would be the target, was an example of "Dance with the one who brought you." He deserved the last shot and he made it count.
"The one thing with talented guys is their gauge isn't the other people on the team, their gauge is themselves," Painter said of Williams. "He's a talented guy, he can pass, he can rebound, he can score with his back to the basket. So it's just trying to get him to work harder, so his job is easier. ... (Trying to get him to) catch the ball at seven feet instead of 15 feet, work the guy inside on box-outs. Just trying to get him to be detail-oriented because when he is and he gets good position, he's tough to handle."
Of course, it wasn't a perfect game for Purdue. The offense was awful most of the first half and the Boilermakers probably don't have the same level of athleticism or length as the Spartans. They had trouble finding open shots on the outside much of the night and made just 34% overall. But it was an overwhelmingly positive finish and the theme after the game from players and Painter alike was, "Build on it." This could be the foundation of some confidence for a team that is learning on the fly what it takes to win.
Prior to the game, the Boilermakers and Spartans huddled at the center of the court in a "show of solidarity" in the aftermath of the storming of the US Capitol on Wednesday. Painter said the display was Spartans coach Tom Izzo's idea and Painter thought it was the right thing to do.
"I talked to our players after shootaround today and they were all for it," the 16th-year Boilermaker coach said. "Just the double standard, more than anything. America needs to see that, especially White America and see the double standard that's been going on for years and now for that to happen, it just makes you sick to your stomach. We need to have great leaders in our country across the board that stand up and send the right message."