Tipoff: Purdue at Northwestern, 9 p.m., tonight
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Matt Painter has seen the film. He knows what Northwestern did to Indiana and Illinois. He knows the trouble the Wildcats caused Michigan State.
His Purdue Boilers get their shot tonight in Evanston, Ill., and they have an edge the Hoosiers and the Illini did not:
They are well-versed in winning close games.
Purdue is 8-2 in games decided by eight points or fewer. It's won three straight cliffhangers, including Saturday's 65-64 win over Penn State.
Yes, that matters.
“Any time you can get into close games like we have and get some wins,” Painter said, “it's a confidence-booster for your team.”
The Boilers have smoothed out the roller-coaster approach that marred their early season games. Much work remains, Painter said, but “It's fun when team starts to play together more and play harder. It helps to sell your point and get them to understand what we have to hang our hat on. Our team is in a good place right now. It's what you want as a coach.”
Against Penn State senior guard Terone Johnson shook off 3-for-10 shooting to make a crunch-time tying three-pointer. Sophomore guard Ronnie Johnson, who didn't score in the game, forced a turnover on Penn State's ensuing possession. Sophomore forward A.J. Hammons, who had just missed three foul shots, hit the game-winning free throw with one second left.
“Our guys continued to play,” Painter said. “We had some breakdowns and made some mistakes, but we continued to play. A lot of things had to go our way, but we kept making the next play. That's what's important. That's key, but very simple. Move to the next play. Continue to make the play, have hope and understand that anything can happen."
Still, Painter won't disregard the mistakes that almost cost the Boilers, including 16 turnovers – their most since a mid-December loss to Butler.
“We turned the ball over way too much,” Painter said. “We had seven turnovers in the first half from our bench. We should have seven turnovers from our team for the game.
“Don't let a win camouflage your weaknesses.That can happen as a coach, where you think it's OK, but had you lost, you'd look at those turnovers like they were catastrophic. You still have to look at them that way and understand that's (why) you're going to get beat.”
Northwestern (9-10, 2-4) has won two of its last three games thanks to stingy defense. It's allowed just 48.0 points in its last three games. Illinois, Michigan State and Indiana shot just 30.1 percent against the Wildcats.
“With the way Northwestern controls the pace,” Painter said, “you can't be anxious and take quick shots. You have to grind it out in half-court. You have to be patient and have to be efficient without being deliberate.”
The Wildcats struggle to score. They are last in the Big Ten in scoring, averaging 61.9 points overall and 51.7 points in conference action.
They are led by guard Drew Crawford, who averages 15.1 points and 7.2 rebounds a game. Guard JerShon Cobb averages 11.3 points and 4.5 rebounds.
“We need to make good decisions,” Painter said. “I think that's more important than anything.”