WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — The whispers will now start getting louder.
There were those who grumbled as Illinois won its first 12 games of the season. They now have some evidence to go along with their opinion that the Fighting Illini’s fast non-conference start may not have Big Ten legs after the Illini’s 68-61 loss to Purdue in Wednesday’s conference opener.
“They got us on the glass, we had no answer for (Terone) Johnson, (D.J) Byrd got loose in the second half and they made a couple of hustle plays against us late — that is a recipe for disaster,” Illinois coach John Groce said.
Those who were serving warnings as the Illini (13-2, 0-1 Big Ten) were shooting opponents out of the gym said the team’s lack of inside presence would hurt during the Big Ten season, especially if shots quit falling at the rate they did in wins against Southern California, Gonzaga and Butler.
And while the Illini shot well early against Purdue (7-6, 1-0), and knocked down shots late that kept the Boilermakers from running away with it, Illinois didn’t play with any consistency on offense.
“We missed some open looks, but I’m not so concerned with the offense at this point,” Groce said. “Offense is fleeting. What I’m disappointed in is, in that guts of the game, they made plays and we didn’t.”
Joseph Bertrand went on an offensive run with Brandon Paul in foul trouble in the first half to stake Illinois to a two-point lead at half, and Tracy Abrams had a nice stretch during an 8-0 run in the second half that gave the Illini a six-point lead with 12:06 left.
But in the next nine minutes, Illinois scored four points.
“We just have to finish the game out,” Bertrand said. “We played well the whole game until that last stretch. We let up and they got us.”
After scoring three points on 1-of-6 shooting in the first half, Purdue’s D.J. Byrd had 12 points on 4-of-5 shooting in the second half. But his biggest play came with 21 seconds left and the Illini trailing 63-61. On the second of two missed free throws by Jacob Lawson, Byrd fell down chasing the rebound, grabbed it while on his knees and signaled for a timeout before falling out of bounds. Byrd made a layup on Purdue’s ensuing possession to give the Boilers a two-possession lead with less than 20 seconds to play.
“No one is a 100 percent free-throw shooter, so I just tried to split those guys and get my hands on the ball before it went out of bounds,” Byrd said. “It was just a hustle play.”
Groce said it was those types of plays that won the game for Purdue. The Boilermakers scored 15 points on second-chance opportunities to just four for the Illini.
“Byrd made a couple of plays that were winning plays,” Groce said. “He’s a tough son-of-a-gun and he made plays.
“But that rebound is on us. That’s unacceptable. We had inside position. We have to get the ball. If we get that, we have a chance to win.”
Illinois also struggled to guard Purdue’s Terone Johnson, who doubled his scoring average with 25 points — mostly on mid-range shots after penetrating into the lane.
“They went into a zone against us and we did exactly what coach wants us to do against a zone — get in the middle,” said Johnson, one of three Purdue contributors with the last name Johnson.
The season could start fading fast if Illinois isn’t careful. The Illini’s next two games are at home against No. 8 Ohio State and No. 9 Minnesota.
“That’s the beauty of this league — the next one is coming right at you and you have to be ready for it,” Groce said. “If you can’t get up off the mat, you’ll get trampled in this league.”
Abrams said Groce got that message across loud and clear.
“We got out-toughed in this one — it’s a tough conference,” Abrams said. “But we’ve got to have a short memory. We have to learn from it.”