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WEST LAFAYETTE – Can games do what practice couldn't?
Purdue is about to find out.
The Boilers have hit the heavy load of their basketball schedule. After playing three games in 21 days (losing two of them), they play four in 10, two on the road.
Practice didn't make perfect. Maybe play can.
“For us, you look at our schedule and we had a lot of time to practice,” coach Matt Painter said. “Now our practices are done. We've got four games in 10 days, and we've got to get a day off somewhere.”
Sunday's 70-64 Mackey Arena victory means Purdue now has a Big Ten victory on its resume. It has shown it can get tough when necessary. And if the Boilers (11-5 overall, 1-2 in the conference) aren't close to conference contender execution, there are signs that maybe -- maybe -- they can get there.
“Our thing is effort,” Painter said. “It's getting the 50-50 balls. It's preparing for opponents. It's getting young guys mentally ready to play a game, especially in tough venues like Illinois and Minnesota where it's loud.”
Purdue lost by three at Minnesota last week, done in by questionable shot selection amid fierce Gopher pressure. It heads to No. 23 Illinois on Wednesday, and the Illini are 9-0 at home. Then it hosts Penn State on Saturday and plays at Northwestern on Jan. 21.
Beating Nebraska took the sting out of a 0-2 Big Ten start, but didn't alter team flaws and strengths, or Painter's plan to deal with them.
“We have to get guys to understand we won, but we also won at home,” he said. “Going on the road in the Big Ten is a tough task.”
Purdue has a road victory to prepare for that task, having won at West Virginia 73-70 just before the start of Big Ten play. Painter is already using that to his advantage.
“We were great at West Virginia. We were locked in. We understood what we had to do.
“This team has to learn not to beat itself. When we don't beat ourselves, and don't take ill-advised shots, we're efficient. We have a good balance of size and skill.”
Learning is not finished, and Sunday was a perfect example.
The Boilers botched their way to a late three-point deficit. When they weren't turning it over (six turnovers in seven possessions, nine for the second half), they were missing free throws (12-for-23 in the second half).
The result -- they gave Nebraska every opportunity to rally on the road, and the Cornnhuskers did, taking a 58-55 lead with less than seven minutes remaining.
Then Purdue got tough. It made the necessary plays. Ronnie Johnson scored four straight points. A.J. Hammons hit a jumper and two free throws. Carter had a layup and three free throws.
Yes, the Boilers had the Mackey Arena edge against one of the Big Ten's weaker teams -- which given Big Ten power doesn't come close to being a breather -- but they still had to make the plays under, in essence, must-win pressure for a team harboring conference dark-horse aspirations.
And so they did.
“I felt we just stayed poised,” Carter said. “We had faith in each other. We didn't let being down three with six minutes left rattle us. We kept coming, and we got the victory at the end.”
As far as the turnover frenzy, it hasn't been a huge problem over the season. The Boilers average 11.6 a game, which is better than top-20 teams Michigan State (11.9) and Iowa (12.0). Still, they tend to happen more late in games, and when four of your five losses have been in overtime or by less than 10 points, that matters.
As the point guard, it's Johnson's job to minimize them.
“When that happens, you have to slow it down a little bit. Keep talking to teammates. We know how important it is not to turn it over. We've got to stay composed, and keep passing the ball around until you find openings in the defense. Keep running motion and getting people open.”
And so a week of tough practices and team bonding (see bowling as chemistry) produced Sunday's Nebraska win, flaws and all.
“Our effort was better, but we're not consistent in finishing,” Painter said. “We should have had a bigger lead in the first half. Once again we had opportunities at the rim and we just didn't finish. In the second half, we didn't take care of the ball.”
In other words, Painter has plenty of teaching points to work with. On Wednesday, we'll see how well the lesson was learned.