BY JIM COTTER
Maybe, just maybe, the Illini are starting to regain the shooting touch that they had earlier in the season.
The Fighting Illini snapped an eight-game losing streak against Purdue, defeating the Boilermakers 79-59 on Wednesday evening at Assembly Hall. The Illini, who have now won three straight games after dropping six out of seven, put together quality halves for the first time since before the Big Ten season began.
The Illini would not be denied in this game, avenging a 68-61 loss to the Boilermakers back on Jan. 2 in West Lafayette, Ind.
The Illini took a 43-29 lead into the halftime locker room, and came out to start the second half like they ended the first.
“I thought we were together all night long,” Illinois coach John Groce said after the game. “We had seven players that scored at least eight points, so I thought we were balanced.”
D. J. Richardson led the Illini in scoring with 18 points, while Tracy Abrams added 13. The win improves the Illini to 18-8 overall and 5-7 in the Big Ten, while Purdue falls to 12-13 overall and is now tied with the Illini in conference standings with a 5-6 mark. The Boilermakers were led in scoring by Terone Johnson, who had 18 points.
“Abrams is at a good place in his mind right now. He has been better defensively the past two games, and is focused on making his teammates better first,” Groce said.
Tyler Griffey had another well-rounded game, scoring 12 points and grabbing six rebounds, further demonstrating that maybe his slump is a thing of the past.
“We’ve had a tough stretch, playing three games in the span of seven days, but we’ve been working very hard and have been focused throughout,” Griffey said.
Sam McLaurin, who continues to impress on the floor, ended up with eight points and five rebounds.
“Sam has really been doing the little things lately, and have been making winning plays,”Groce said of his senior transfer.
Purdue coach Matt Painter was ejected in the second half after receiving two technical fouls on a disputed call that went against his team. Richardson promptly went down and connected on all four free throws to seemingly throw the game wide open.
Joseph Bertrand had a career high in rebounds with 12, and just missed his first career double-double, scoring nine points. According to Groce, Bertrand played with a lot of intensity.
“I thought Joe was really active, especially on the offensive boards,” Groce said.
Brandon Paul, who had a rare off-night shooting the basketball, fouled out late in the second half and only scored three points.
The Illini out-rebounded the Boilermakers by a 44-34 margin, reversing a trend that was very visible during their recent losing streak.
“I thought Illinois was much quicker to the ball tonight, and it just kind of snowballed as the game wore on,” Painter said after the game of the Illini’s dominance on the boards. Painter continued by saying that “their (Illinois’) effort was much better than the first meeting with us.”
The Illini will have Thursday off, before preparing for Northwestern on Sunday.
The Wildcats defeated the Illini 68-54 last month in Champaign, but are now without Jared Swopshire, who sustained a knee injury last week and will miss the remainder of the season.
“I really hate to take tomorrow (Thursday) off, because we are locked in, but I would probably get in trouble from the compliance officer if we went in practice,” Groce said.
At halftime of the game, the members of the 1963 Big Ten champion Illini team was recognized, and Tal Brody, one of the stars of that team, was honored with a banner depicting his jersey No. 12, which will hang from the rafters of the Assembly Hall with all of the other Illini greats.
The Illini and the Wildcats will tip-off at 6:30 p.m. on Sunday night, and will be televised on the Big Ten Network. The game will also be on WDAN-AM 1490 and WDNL-FM 102.1, as well as statewide on the Illini Sports Network.