WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — The rebound didn't matter in deciding the outcome of the game.
Purdue was going to wrap up a home win over Illinois on Wednesday night with or without 7-foot-3 big man Matt Haarms grabbing a rebound with 26 seconds left, though he provided a bit of a fist pump to celebrate.
But the board, Haarms' 10th of the night, put a bow on a 21-point, 10-rebound double-double and helped Purdue score 40 points in the paint in a 73-56 win at Mackey Arena.
The 40 points in the paint was tied for second most allowed this season (Nebraska is the other instance) by the Illini. Without big man Giorgi Bezhanishvili, who battled foul trouble in his 21 minutes, 58 seconds on the court with two points and three rebounds, the Boilermakers exploited Illinois' lack of height in the post — especially with Adonis De La Rosa unavailable because of his knee.
That left Kipper Nichols to battle with Haarms in the post when Bezhanishvili was on the bench. Illinois (10-18, 6-11) had overcome the height mismatch for most of the game. After the game was tied 48-all with 9:43 left, the Boilermakers closed the game on a 25-8 run, with Haarms scoring eight of those 25 points. He also added five blocks and was 8-of-8 from the floor and 4-of-4 from the free-throw line.
Illinois knows it's undersized. The Illini and coach Brad Underwood take great pride in denying the ball from ever getting in the post. Underwood said the team still has "by far and away" the fewest post touches allowed in the Big Ten, but when it happens, it can spell trouble.
“You’ve got to have ball pressure," Underwood said. "You’ve got to take that away. In the first half we had three that I know of where we just allowed the wing catch. When you play like we do denying, you can’t allow those."
No one is walking into the State Farm Center or into the Ubben Basketball Complex who can immediately provide a remedy for the lack of height as Illinois closes out the final three games of the regular season and heads into the Big Ten Tournament. That relief will come next season in the form of five-star big man Kofi Cockburn, who has verbally committed to join the Illini.
For now, Illinois has to rely on its principles of ball denial. No touches in the post means no points for the big men. Sometimes it's easier said than done. Illinois allowed Haarms to score 10 points in the first half, but four of those points came on offensive rebounds that he tipped in.
Underwood was pleased with his team's first-half defense before things slid away in the second half, combined with the fact that the team shot 8-of-29 from behind the arc.
“Early on it was there," senior Aaron Jordan said of denying the post. "Coach said it was probably one of our best halves. But then when they made the adjustment, we didn’t. We didn’t keep our pressure on them. Our best post defense is our guards. That’s our guards' fault."
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There's an element of satisfaction for the Illini when they prevent the ball from getting inside. When they do it, they can make even the nation's best big men look mortal — Illinois held Ethan Happ to a combined 15 points in two games. When it doesn't work, players like Haarms can have break-out performances.
“We do take a lot of pride in that," said guard Alan Griffin, who came down with four rebounds off the bench. "Just deny the wings. If we deny the wings, it means no post touches and that’s a huge compliment for us."
Of course, at some point the opposing team is going to get the ball to their big men. That issue is exacerbated without Bezhanishvili or De La Rosa on the floor, as was the case for much of Wednesday's game.
“That’s one of our primary defenses: Not letting the ball get into the post," guard Andres Feliz said. "Sometimes they have more of a size advantage against us. Eventually, they’re going to get one or two catches. We have to keep working hard to not let them get in there so often."
Underwood's defensive system is unique. About every coach to have played against the Illini this year has said as much. They heavily deny passes. Carsen Edwards said at times the Illini don't even look at the ball, just their assignment.
It's a tough thing to plan for, but Haarms and Purdue found ways to take advantage of the hyper-aggressive nature.
“I feel like they know that they don’t have the height and that’s the reason they’re fronting so aggressively," Haarms said. "They know they can’t stop a guy when they’re playing behind, then they can’t stop a bigger guy in the post. So they have to basically front. We were able to exploit that today."
Illinois will see three familiar big men to close out the regular season in Northwestern's Dererk Pardon (10 points, eight rebounds in the first meeting), Indiana's Juwan Morgan (15 points, 10 rebounds) and Penn State's Mike Watkins (10 points, 12 rebounds, 5 blocks), who more recently propelled the Nittany Lions to a win over Illinois.
The lack of height won't go away, but with Bezhanishvili on the court, it will get easier.
“It is hard when (Haarms) catches it in there, but we trust our big men, especially Giorgi," Griffin said. "He’s been going at a lot of other big men than Haarms. We have a lot of trust in Giorgi to take care of that."