COLUMN: Indiana survives war vs. Purdue, moves one step closer to Big Ten crown

Indiana survived a late scare from Purdue and beat its rival, 77-73, on Saturday night at Assembly Hall. Hoosiers were wounded in the war, but their Big Ten title hopes are still alive.

It was an absolute war, a 40-minute game of mental chess between the coaches and physical battles between the players.

Indiana and Purdue, the way the rivalry should be. 

The Hoosiers punched Purdue repeatedly, each one looking like a potential knockout blow. The same punches have already killed Ohio State, Illinois, Northwestern and others this season. 

But just when the Boilers looked dead on Saturday night, they picked themselves up off the mat and punched back.

Nobody blinked. Nobody quit. It was a battle all the way to the 12th round, when Yogi Ferrell delivered the dagger with a floater that Purdue's A.J. Hammons goaltended with 7 seconds left. 

Indiana 77, Purdue 73. The Hoosiers live to fight another day.

"It's a fight, right? We've got guys in there getting stitches," Indiana coach Tom Crean said afterward. "It's a battle, and they're very good at it. It's no easy task to go to battle with the three centers that they have. We know we beat a really, really good team that has the potential to play for a long, long time in the tournament."

The Hoosiers (22-6, 12-3 Big Ten), too, have the look of a team that could play long into the tournament, but they were wounded on Saturday. Sophomore guard Robert Johnson went down with an apparent ankle injury late in the second half and had to be carried to the bench. Indiana has already lost one starting guard for the season -- James Blackmon Jr. -- and certainly cannot afford to lose another for any extended period of time.

But the once-forgotten Hoosiers are suddenly surging toward March with much more than just an NCAA Tournament berth on their minds. The same team that was booed at home during the non-conference season after losses to Wake Forest and UNLV in Maui holds first place in the Big Ten with 3 games to go.

"We didn't practice on Thursday. There's a risk with that, right?," Crean asked. "Because Purdue has been sitting there since Tuesday night. We didn't even go on the court Thursday at all because we hadn't been away from the court [in awhile]. When you have that, and when they're in there watching film, when they're in there putting things together, they're communicating with the coaches ... they're locked in. They're not just bought it, they're locked in."

The Hoosiers hold a half-game lead on Iowa and are 1.5 games up on Maryland, and they don't play again until Thursday at Illinois. They've become one of the most dangerous teams in the country, and they've done it by strengthening their weaknesses.

When Indiana skated through the non-conference season, it had no interest in playing defense and turned it over at one of the highest rates in all of college basketball. In Saturday night's win over Purdue, the Hoosiers had a season-low 4 turnovers against the 7th-best defense in the country, and they battled defensively for 40 minutes.

"I thought their pressure bothered us," Painter said. "They made it difficult for us to catch. Not really in the post, but on the perimeter. When you can't catch on the perimeter and you can't break people down, it's gonna make it harder to get to the rim, whether you're driving or posting up."

Johnson's injury not withstanding, Saturday was a great day for IU, and it was great for basketball in the state of Indiana. This Indiana-Purdue thriller was a grown-man game witnessed by a national television audience. If I'm watching that game at home, I'm thinking two things:

1. I don't want to see either of these teams in the postseason.

2. It's a damn shame they don't play twice every year.

Last year, Purdue (21-7, 9-6) was a total mismatch for Indiana, which was so thin on the front line that 6-4 guard Stanford Robinson was regularly tasked with defending the post.

And while the Boilers haven't gotten any smaller -- they've actually gotten even bigger -- Indiana has gotten bigger, too. Crean didn't have bodies like Thomas Bryant, Max Bielfeldt, OG Anunoby or Juwan Morgan to throw at Purdue's two-headed monster of Hammons and Isaac Haas last season. 

It takes an incredible amount of energy to play against Purdue, and the Boilers eventually wore down Indiana when the teams met at Assembly Hall a year ago. The Hoosiers' added depth, though, gave them just enough on Saturday to edge a Purdue team that has Final Four talent.

None of the Indiana interior players had flashy statistical numbers, but they all contributed something, even if it was only the five fouls they had to give. 

"Nobody has guys right now that can guard those guys 1-on-1. I haven't seen it," Crean said. 

The real difference in the second half was Bielfeldt, who John Beilein ran out of Ann Arbor during the offseason. The Michigan grad transfer tormented Hammons and Haas with his ability to make shots from the perimeter, something he could not do a year ago. Bielfeldt had 10 points and 6 rebounds, including 8 points and two 3s in a two and a half minute stretch in the second half. 

Boilermaker guard Vince Edwards said Bielfeldt's perimeter shooting was the difference in the game.

"He's a tough matchup because of his ability to drive the ball, his ability to shoot it, and then kind of play in between," said Purdue coach Matt Painter. "He uses his quickness against those guys to get angles. He definitely helped."

He rarely gets much attention -- his game isn't what one might call 'flashy' -- but Bielfeldt has been vital to Indiana's success this season. Beilein looks bad for letting him go, but the truth is, Crean and his staff have played a large role in transforming Bielfeldt into the player he has become. Bielfeldt rarely left the paint at Michigan. If he didn't leave the paint on Saturday, Indiana loses to Purdue. 

"We didn't need him to come in here and be a babysitter," Crean said. "We needed him to come in here and show leadership with a bunch of young guys. That's exactly what he's done."

Bielfeldt may have been the difference, but it took far more than just him to earn the emotional win. It took Troy Williams scoring 19 points on 7-of-11 shooting, all the while playing with a defensive intensity that I've never seen from him. It took Yogi Ferrell starting the game 5-of-5 for 13 points before Purdue could even catch its breath. It took Thomas Bryant avoiding major foul trouble and scoring the first 7 points of the second half.

It took Juwan Morgan's 3, Harrison Niego's steal, Collin Hartman taking a charge.

And even with all of it, Purdue came a defensive stop away from having a chance to tie or win the game, despite trailing by 19 points in the second half. 

With the sold-out Assembly Hall crowd holding its collective breath in shock of Purdue's comeback, Ferrell did what great players do -- he delivered the knockout blow.

"I like our group, but I thought Indiana was a little bit tougher, thought they were a little better better than us today," Painter said.

The Hoosiers were wounded, but they survived the War of Indiana on Saturday night. At this time of the year, with these kinds of stakes, survival is the most important thing. Top Stories