CHAMPAIGN – In January, Illinois opened its Big Ten season with a loss at Purdue that bugged coach John Groce.
His Illini were riding an impressive start to the season, but on the court at Purdue they got "out-toughed," as the first year coach put it. And the loss sent Illinois reeling – it lost six of its next eight.
After Wednesday night, consider the tables turned.
The Illini (18-8 overall, 5-7 Big Ten) slugged their way to a blowout over the Boilermakers, 79-59.
"I thought we played with great toughness," Groce said. "I think we're getting better. We're improving. ... You want to be that team that continues improving (late in the season)."
The win was Illinois' third straight after upsets over No. 1 Indiana and then-No. 18 Minnesota. And, less than two weeks after they looked to be dropping out of any NCAA tournament talk, the Illini are headed back into the conversation.
The night was frustrating for the Boilermakers (12-13, 5-7). They dropped behind big in the first half and watched Illinois pull away. Coach Matt Painter drew a technical foul and was ejected late in the game for arguing with official Tim Clougherty, but said the loss was on his own team's lack of effort and, yes, toughness.
"We didn't play hard enough, obviously. We didn't play well enough," he said. "It's really unacceptable."
D.J. Richardson led Illinois with 18 points. Point guard Tracy Abrams had 13 and Tyler Griffey scored 12. Joseph Bertrand had a career-high 12 rebounds.
Terone Johnson led Purdue with 18 points.
A dunk by Griffey with 8:46 remaining put Illinois up 64-46. The margin was too much for a Boilermakers team that had already tried to dig out of a 16-point first-half hole.
"I thought they were quicker to the basketball, that they were able to establish that really from the first couple of possessions," Painter said. "It just really snowballed from there."
Illinois led 43-29 at the half, putting up is highest first-half point total since it had 47 against Auburn in an 81-79 win on Dec. 29.
In the second half, the Illini pushed the lead to 25 on a bucket by Bertrand with just over six minutes to play.
Illinois didn't have much offense from its usual leading scorer, Brandon Paul, who finished with three points. But they didn't need much from him.
Eight Illinois players got on the scoreboard, including seven who scored at least eight points.
"Other guys stepped up and made plays," Groce said. "I think our guys understand right now that it's about team defense and team offense."
And Illinois limited its mistakes, with 11 turnovers. Purdue, which averages 12.5 turnovers a game, had 10 by halftime and finished with 17. Two were passes tossed well out of bounds and to no one in particular.
The first, by Johnson, flew 10 feet over the head of D.J. Byrd, who appeared to be its target. Byrd closed his eyes in frustration while Johnson stretched his arms out and dropped his jaw open wide.
The Illini pulled down 44 boards, 20 of them on offense.
Painter believed his big men were being illegally pushed around inside but not getting calls, the source of his argument with officials.
"They just keep getting displaced," Painter said. "The whole game, (the Illini) push and push and push."
Abrams had seven of Illinois' 14 assists. He set the tone early, softly tossing a ball over a defender to Nnanna Egwu for a dunk that gave Illinois its first lead, 6-4.
Abrams, Groce said, is a big reason why Illinois is bouncing back from its rough midseason stretch.
"He just keeps continuing to make guys better," Groce said. "We all know he's capable of scoring. And there'll be times he has to do that."
Purdue had won eight straight against the Illini. Some of Illinois' worst recent memories involve the Boilermakers. And the man responsible for a number of those bad memories is Byrd.
But Byrd came into Champaign on a slump, failing to score from the field in Purdue's previous two games.
Byrd didn't score Wednesday until hitting a 3-pointer almost eight minutes into the game. The shot was a big one, pulling Purdue to within 19-16. But, at least on offense, he went quiet again, finishing with 10 points. Four of them came in garbage time.
Richardson said Groce warned his team from early on that they would face tough times at some point this season. When it came, he said, the team persevered, and now that's paying off.
"We did a good job of bouncing back and fighting," Richardson said.
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