After beginning Big Ten Conference play 0-2, Purdue faced a four-game sequence that would make or break its league season.
Nebraska. At Illinois. Penn State. At Northwestern. The Boilermakers needed all four to be relevant in the Big Ten race. They got Nebraska on Sunday, and achieved the most difficult challenge Wednesday night in the State Farm Center, rallying to defeat suddenly reeling Illinois, 66-58.
A.J. Hammons played like a man, contributing 17 points. Ronnie Johnson played his best game as a Boilermaker with 13 points, including four clutch free throws in the final minute, and Terone Johnson added 10, including two more free throws at crunch time.
Purdue (12-5, 2-2 in the Big Ten) won a game in which it was outscored 14-2 to end the first half and made only 1 of its first 11 attempts from 3-point range.
"Purdue was physically tougher than us, especially in the second half," Illinois coach John Groce said. "They threw us around like rag dolls. They beat us up on the backboard. All the credit goes to them. They played with nine turnovers and got 16 offensive rebounds. That was the game."
And the game was also won because Ronnie Johnson played to the potential he showed when Matt Painter recruited him.
He was 4 of 6 from the field and 4 of 4 from the line - yes 4 of 4 - for 13 points to go with four rebounds, two assists and solid defense.
Ronnie Johnson and Kendall Stephens sank consecutive 3-pointers for a 57-52 lead, and Purdue never trailed again. It was a road game Purdue had to have, and the Boilermakers got it, sending Illinois (13-5, 2-3) to a third consecutive defeat.
The Boilermakers out rebounded Illinois 42-28, including an incredible 23-7 in the second half. And when the Johnsons made six consecutive free throws to close the game, you had to know it was Purdue's night.
Purdue finished 10 of 12 from the line, 83.3 percent.
"We know we will make them in the tough games," a confident Ronnie Johnson said. "We've really been practicing them in practice. We have to keep shooting the same shot, and they will fall."
Considering the opponent, the venue and the importance of the game, Ronnie Johnson believes this was his best game in a Purdue uniform.
"Was it my best ... probably so," Johnson said. "I think so. I thought I did everything. I rebounded, and I got my teammates involved I knocked down some big shots at end of the game."
Johnson pointed to the back to back 3s he and Stephens made as the ones that secured the victory.
"The daggers," Johnson said. "They were great shots. We were wide open. You just have to take it and knock it down. This was a huge win." Yes indeed, it was a huge win. Any Big Ten road victory is huge, especially at a place like Illinois, where many good teams have failed.
Now, Purdue has knocked off Nebraska and Illinois, and it should beat Penn State and Northwestern, which have combined for one league win. After that, the schedule gets really tough, which is why this is such a huge four-game sequence, after which Purdue should be 4-2 in the conference, a really nice rebound from an 0-2 start.
Yes, it's two down and two to go in this key sequence for Boilermaker basketball.