CHAMPAIGN — In his two seasons at Illinois, John Groce has had his team wear wristbands with the phrase ‘TNT’ on it.
It stands for toughness and togetherness, but on Wednesday night the Fighting Illini lost their toughness in the second half.
The Purdue Boilermakers, behind senior A.J. Hammons 17 points and eight rebounds, handed Illinois its third straight defeat with a 66-58 victory before 15,007 at the State Farm Center.
“They were tougher than us physically and they threw us around like rag dolls,’’ Groce said. “That’s unacceptable. Our guys better figure it out pretty quickly that toughness is required.’’
And while Groce was very upset and disappointed in his team, the opposite was said by Purdue coach Matt Painter.
The Boilermakers (12-5 overall, 2-2 in the Big Ten Conference) not only won the battle of the boards (42-28) over the Illini, but in the second half Purdue had 23 rebounds to just seven for Illinois.
“That was the key to the game,’’ Painter said. “We out-rebounded them by 16 in the second half. I thought we were great. It was our best rebounding game of the season.’’
And that was a concern for Painter coming into the game, because Illinois (13-5, 2-3) has been one of the top rebounding teams in the Big Ten Conference. The Illini are second in the league with offensive rebounding and they had 61 more rebounds than the opponents this season.
Additionally, Illinois committed more turnovers (12-9) than Purdue.
“This is an easy one,’’ Groce said. “We lost the possession battle ... they got 10 more possessions.’’
And those extra possessions turned in points as the Boilermakers outscored the Illini 17-5 in second-chance points and 13-7 in points off of turnovers.
“We have rebounded the ball well and we have taken care of the ball very well,’’ Groce said. “That has been a real strength of our team. It’s been the one consistent in every game until tonight. It’s something that we’ve hung our hats on this year.
“We got abused on the backboard, and when we needed to take care of the ball, we didn’t do it.’’
Illinois junior guard Tracy Abrams admitted that hearing his coach talk about his team’s lack of toughness was something that he enjoyed.
“As a leader, I put that on my shoulders,’’ he said. “I have to do a better job of preparing my guys and myself to be tough.’’
When asked if the fact that a few of the Fighting Illini, like junior guard Rayvonte Rice, are dealing with some nagging injuries, Abrams was cut off by his coach.
“We have no excuses,’’ Groce said.
And Abrams echoed his coach’s statements, basically saying that wasn’t a factor.
Later, Groce acknowledged that Illinois did have a little different type of practice on Tuesday as Rice was being treated for strained abductor and other players had some bumps and bruises.
“We are nicked up a little bit,’’ he said. “But, we put five guys out there and they put five guys other. It’s January and this is Big Ten basketball. Every team has to deal with that.’’
In the first half, it didn’t look like Rice was suffering with any kind of an injury as he scored 10 points and pulled down four rebounds. But in the second half, Purdue limited the 6-foot-4 junior guard from Champaign Centennial to just one point and one field goal attempt.
“Not really,’’ said Painter when asked if the Boilermakers made any changes at halftime on Rice. “We just tried to keep the ball in front of us. We tried to keep him off his right hand. Basically, we didn’t want him to work downhill going to his right. We tried to work towards that.’’
And Rice wasn’t the only Illini perimeter player to find the going a lot tougher in the second half.
Abrams, who had 11 of his team-high 13 in the first 20 minutes, had just two free throws in the second half and he was 0-for-6 from the field.
“We wanted them to score over us,’’ Painter said.
That’s because the Boilermakers had the 7-foot Hammons in the middle of the lane, stopping the majority of the drives for Illinois.
Hammons was credited with three blocked shots, but sophomore from Gary, Ind., altered several more attempts.
Ultimately, it was a total team defensive effort for Purdue that was the difference. Illinois scored just four points in the final 4 minutes, 35 seconds and the Illini had five empty possessions during that stretch.
On the other hand, Purdue made 7-of-8 free throws and the Boilermakers got points on five of seven possessions during that same stretch.
“Going down the stretch, we got some stops and we made some plays,’’ Painter said.
While Hammons had a game-high 17 points, the Boilermakers also got double-digit scoring from Ronnie Johnson (13 points) and Terone Johnson (10).
In addition to Abrams (13) and Rice (11), the Illini also got 11 points from senior Joseph Bertrand.
Things don’t get any easier for Illinois this Saturday as the fourth-rated Michigan State Spartans come to the State Farm Center for a 7 p.m. contest against the Illini.
While Purdue will take a two-game winning streak into a home game against the Penn State Nittany Lions. Tip off on Saturday at Mackey Arena in West Lafayette is set for 7 p.m. (EASTERN).