Illinois had eliminated Purdue from last year's Big Ten Tournament and had won both meetings this season. Playing healthy again, the Boilermakers put it all together to win convincingly.
Illinois coach Bruce Weber gave credit to Purdue.
"They're healthy. I said this from the beginning. If they're healthy, with their good chemistry they're probably the best. That's nothing against Michigan State. It's very close."
The Boilermakers are peaking at the right time. But it took a couple bad games in a row to wake them up according to Weber.
"They lost two games in a row, and they had a gut check. It got their attention. Obviously they played well. They played very hard and physical, and when they shoot threes like that, it's pretty tough to beat them. We gave up some open looks, and we got down a little bit. That's where Chester calms us down."
Much like the game at Minnesota and the home game with Penn State, the Illini went into an extended shooting slump. No starter scored in the last 16 minutes of the first half. And just like those other two games, Illini players started sulking and feeling sorry for themselves.
Weber felt yesterday's big win over Michigan took something out on his team.
"We used a lot of emotion yesterday. It was 10-8, and then they go on a run. And then it was 23-17, and we gave up 5 straight points off second chance. Hummel hit the three and got a layup. And it was all downhill."
Purdue's tight man-to-man defense had a lot to do with Illinois' poor shooting, but even open shots ended badly. Illinois didn't score in the last 10:15 of the first half. A lack of focus led to some uncharacteristic turnovers that also worked in Purdue's favor. The first half ended with Purdue up 37-17, and the game was no longer in doubt.
Illinois also missed its first three shots of the second half before rallying. Calvin Brock hit a 3, Mike Davis added two free throws and a baseline jumper and Brock added a rebound layin to pull the Illini within 15 at 41-26. But Purdue pushed the lead back to 21 and coasted from there.
For awhile, some Illini fans feared the final score would be in the 30's, a reminder of the two nightmare games with Minnesota and PSU. But Brock, Dominique Keller and late addition Bill Cole battled Illinois back to within 10 at the end.
Keller was Illinois' high scorer with 16 points. He also contributed 3 rebounds, 1 steal and 1 block. Brock added 12 points and 5 rebounds. Mike Davis skied for 12 rebounds but added only 6 points one day after scoring 22. He did dish out 5 assists. Jordan assisted on 4 buckets, and Cole swished 3 threes late for 9 points.
Purdue took Demetri McCamey completely out of the game. In fact, he played only 20 minutes as he was 0-5 from the floor and had 4 turnovers to go with 2 assists. McCamey needed to be a leader in Chester Frazier's absence, but he could not get it done on this day. Mike Tisdale was in foul trouble and couldn't take advantage of his height advantage, scoring only 4 points.
If there was one thing Weber could take from the game, it was the play of some of his reserves.
"We learned something. A lot of guys got to play. Jeffrey Jordan showed some nice signs. Bill Cole has played well and shot the ball well in practice, it was just a matter of finally giving him some time. So it was good for him. Dominque did some good things and bad things, almost in the same breath."
The Illini's late scoring surge raised their shooting on the day to 35%. Given that Purdue wasn't much better at 37.9%, one might think the game was close. But Purdue shot well in bursting out to their big first half lead, and they didn't need to be that accurate the second half. Center JaJuan Johnson was too agile inside, leading the Boilermakers with 20 points. Robbie Hummel added 19 points and 12 rebounds.
Weber knew from the start he was fighting an uphill battle without Chester Frazier in the game. So he was philosophical about the outcome and looking forward to finding out the NCAA seedings Sunday evening.
"It was a good year, and that was a gutsy win yesterday. Now we'll see if we can get Chester back. This has been a good tournament for us. We learned a lot about some other guys. So in the long run, it will help us as much as yesterday."
The day before his injury, Frazier said something that proved prophetic.
"It must not be meant for me to get a ring. I dislocated my ring finger a couple weeks ago. So maybe I'm not meant to have one. This is my one chance, and I'm willing to die first. I'll go out there and do anything possible to win it."
Chester never once saw the floor, and he failed to get a Big 10 ring four years in a row. It just wasn't meant to be.