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WEST LAFAYETTE – We've seen that shot before at Purdue, whether it was Troy Lewis or Chad Austin or Cuonzo Martin. Time is wasting. A game is slipping way. It's a senior's time to rise or fall.
Terone Johnson rose. He did what seniors have to do, burying a three-pointer with the lengthy Penn State guard D.J. Newbill flying at him, tying the score with 6.6 seconds left, setting up an improbable and satisfying 65-64 win on Saturday at Mackey Arena.
“I always ask, 'What's the worst thing you can do in that situation?' ” Purdue coach Matt Painter said. “I always stop and let them answer: You don't get a shot. Sometimes the play that's made is just a one-on-one play and you go get a clean look and he was able to do that. Credit to him stepping up and knocking it down.”
Johnson's play set up the incredible ending – the topping on a delicious pizza of a win, so to speak. The Boilers were able to steal the ball from Penn State, set up a half-court out-of-bounds play and get sophomore big man A.J. Hammons to the free-throw line. He hit the game-winning free throw, after a long timeout and a review, with 1.1 seconds left.
Painter tried to calm Hammons' nerves before the free throws. “He asked me what I (wanted) on my pizza for postgame,” Hammons said. “I said, 'meat lovers with jalapenos and pineapple.”
This game would have had indigestion written all over it if Purdue hadn't found a way to win. Penn State came into the game winless in the Big Ten. You can't lose home games to last-place Big Ten teams and survive the NCAA Tournament bubble, if it comes to that – and it could – for Purdue.
No, this was a game that Purdue needed to win, one that it had to win, and it was fitting, then that Johnson came up with his own free throws and a late drive to the basket to help seal it.
The Boilermakers are a young team, no question. At one point, Johnson's four teammates on the floor were a sophomore (Hammons) and three freshmen (Basil Smotherman, Kendall Stephens and Bryson Scott). But what a young team needs most is a senior to step up and deliver the big plays at the biggest times.
Beating Penn State at home won't cause much of a ripple outside of West Lafayette, but the way the Boilers won – with their backs against the wall and time running out – could resonate later if they play bigger games against better opponents.
Johnson didn't play particularly well most of the game, but he came through when it counted the most.
“He hit a pull-up in the second half, he made his free throws, 5 for 6, he did a lot of little things, made a couple extra passes,” Painter said. “He's making better basketball plays and the right basketball plays.”
The win improved Purdue's record to 13-5 and 3-2 in the Big Ten as the Boilers head into a stretch where they'll play three of their next four on the road, starting Tuesday at Northwestern.
They won their third-straight Big Ten game, something they didn't accomplish all of last season. Some of the younger guys made pivotal plays: Stephens hit four three-pointers and finished with 12 points, Smotherman recorded a double-double with highs in points (12) and rebounds (10). Scott was thrown into defending Penn State's tremendous guard Tim Frazier (19 points, 10 rebounds, five assists) and did a decent job while Ronnie Johnson fought foul trouble.
Penn State cut off the inside game of Hammons, a strategy Purdue will see again, probably about as long as Hammons is in a Purdue uniform. Hammons missed all four of his shots from the field, but hit 10 of 14 free throws, including the most important one at the end.
“We have to keep working,” Painter said. “Every single team knows we're trying to get the ball (inside). If we can knock down some of those threes, our post entries will be a little more open. We need to be more of a consistent shooting team.”
Hammon's game-winning free throw came after Purdue's Ronnie Johnson and Sterling Carter dirupted things to steal the ball way from Penn State. Purdue had the ball with 1.3 second left, inbounding it from just to the left of their bench.
Purdue called timeout and went over a play the players said they had installed during walk-through before the game. Painter said it's a little older than that, but they'd never done it from that particular angle. Jay Simpson threw a pass all the way under the basket to Hammons, who used his height to get the ball, and drew a foul from Penn State's Ross Travis.
“I've never been in that predicament,” Hammons said. “If I had missed, I would have had to leave Purdue.”
Hammons elicited laughter with his comments. They don't want him leaving anytime soon. But that win – started with Terone Johnson's three – could help the Boilers stick around come the postseason.