BY CHAD DARE
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. —
Illinois coach John Groce has enjoyed watching film on Purdue senior guard D.J. Byrd.
Before Wednesday’s Big Ten opener at Mackey Arena, Groce called Byrd the X factor and the first-year Illinois coach got up close and personal view.
Byrd scored 12 points in the final 10 minutes, but it was an offensive rebound and a charge he took in the final minute that led the Purdue Boilermakers past the 11th-rated Illinois Fighting Illini 68-61.
“A couple of plays that Byrd made late in the game were winning plays,” Groce said. “I thought he made a couple of toughness plays. I really respect him a lot and enjoyed watching him on film.
“I think he is a tough son of a gun.”
Byrd, a senior from Crawfordsville, Ind., got his only rebound of the game with 21 seconds left in the game after a missed free throw by Jacob Lawson with Purdue leading 63-61. Not only did Byrd outfight an Illini player for the ball, but he also got a timeout called before falling out of bounds.
“No one is a 100 percent free-throw shooter,” Byrd said. “I just tried to split the Illinois guys on the lane, and I was able to get ball before it went out of bounds.”
On the ensuing inbounds, Byrd virtually sealed the victory with a three-point play on a layup and free throw with 20.1 seconds left.
“He made a few hustle plays that changed the game,” Illinois sophomore guard Tracy Abrams said. “In my opinion, they won the game for them.”
And just two possessions earlier, Byrd took a charge from Illinois senior guard Brandon Paul as the Illini (13-2 overall, 0-1 in the Big Ten) had cut the Boilermakers lead from 10 (59-49) to 63-58 after back-to-back 3s from Paul.
“Those are the type of plays that we need from D.J.” Purdue coach Matt Painter said. “Those plays are more important than any of the 3-pointers he made for us.”
But, those long-ranged shots were a big reason why Purdue (7-6, 1-0) built a 10-point second half lead.
Byrd had made just 1-of-7 shots from the field and 1-of-6 from 3-point range through the first 29 minutes, 36 seconds of the contest. In the final 10:24, he made all four of his shots including trio of trifectas as Purdue turned a 45-39 deficit into a 59-49 lead.
“We had Byrd under control in the first half,” Groce said. “We let him get loose in the second half. It started with the transition 3 where we didn’t get the ball stopped.”
And what was Byrd thinking about after making just one shot in the first 30 minutes?
“Keep shooting like the next one is going in,” he said. “Terone (Johnson) hit my on the wing coming down. It was in rhythm. I just caught it and shot it. The next one, I caught it and shot it.
“I had a little love on that third one that rolled in. That happens sometimes.”
And as Groce was quick to point out, it happens to players that are constantly going hard and making hustle plays.
“We got outplayed. It was pretty simple,” he said.
In addition to the play of Byrd, the Boilermakers also got a game-high 25 points from Terone Johnson and they turned 17 offensive rebounds – 10 in the second half – into 15 second-chance points.
“That is a recipe for disaster,” Groce said. “We have to own it. It starts with me.”
And the first-year Illinois coach warned his players that this could happen.
“Some people learn by seeing. Some people learn by listening. And some people learn by peeing on the electric fence,” he said, claiming the quote came from Mark Twain. “Bottom line, we have no excuses – little things matter.”
Both teams continue the grind of the Big Ten Conference this weekend. Illinois returns home to play the Ohio State Buckeyes in a 1:15 p.m. game on Saturday, while Purdue travels to East Lansing, Mich., to play the Michigan State Spartans in a noon (Eastern) game on Saturday.