WEST LAFAYETTE – Purdue coach Matt Painter wondered before today's matchup against Penn State whether the Nittany Lions would have a lot of energy or be rusty coming off a nearly three-week layoff.
The answer is both.
Penn State flew around on defense in the first half, getting far more than its share of tips and forcing the Boilermakers into six turnovers, most of which were a direct result of the visitors' pressure. It was clear the Nittany Lions had been itching to play and they weren't going to let Purdue dictate the tempo. But Penn State is an undersized team that relies on 3-pointers for a significant portion of its offense. In the first half, those shots from long distance were hard to come by: the Nittany Lions went 3 for 13 from beyond the arc, missing their first nine before finally making one. They are shooting 40% overall. As a result Purdue leads 33-32 at halftime.
The reason Purdue's lead is so slim is because the Boilers are shooting even more poorly than Penn State. The Boilermakers missed their first 13 3s and are 2 for 19 from long range at the half. When Sasha Stefanovic finally made one with 4:13 to go in the half, Painter raised his arms to the sky as if to say "Finally!" The Boilers got some good looks and moved the ball relatively well against Penn State's pressure, but the shots simply weren't falling. With both teams building houses that would withstand the biggest, baddest wolf, Purdue built a nine-point lead with interior play. As expected, the Boilermakers have a significant advantage in the paint and they're making great use of it, shuffling Trevion Williams and Zach Edey in an out to keep them both fresh because Penn State can't stop either of them. The pair of Boilermaker big men have a combined 12 points on 5 for 11 shooting and 11 rebounds and have drawn a boatload of fouls on the Nittany Lions that kept their rebounding stats from being even better. Despite giving up four offensive rebounds on its first defensive possession, the Boilermakers lead the rebounding battle 26-21.
Midway through the first half, Penn State began sending aggressive double teams at Williams and Edey whenever they caught the ball in the post, but both Purdue big men were able to keep their composure and make good passes to open teammates on the perimeter. Unfortunately for the Boilermakers, the brick fest kept them from taking advantage of those opportunities, but the offensive flow has generally been good. The one piece of bad news in this area is that Williams and Edey each have two fouls at halftime.
On defense, Purdue started off doing a pretty good job of keeping Penn State out of the lane after Painter said that was a concern following the win over Indiana. Of course, the Nittany Lions are more than happy to launch from behind the 3-point line, but the Boilermakers did a good job early of helping and recovering and staying out of rotations overall. Late in the half, that went away a little bit as Penn State made three 3-pointers in a row off drive-and-kick action. There is plenty to clean up at halftime on that end of the floor, as well. The defensive highlight of the half was a flying chasedown block from Aaron Wheeler, who came all the way from the corner on the other end of the court after missing a 3-pointer.
The key to the second half will likely be whether either or both teams are able to really get it going from 3-point range. If one does and the other remains cold, it's likely that will decide the game. It certainly wasn't a pretty first half, but Purdue mostly matched the hungry Nittany Lions' energy and kept playing hard even as shots weren't falling, which hasn't always been the case for this team.