The Illinois Fighting Illini sure showed why the word fight is in their name tonight against Purdue.
In their last home game of the season, the Illini kept up with the Boilermakers the entire game, but Carsen Edwards’ 40 points (11-of-19 from the field, 14-of-16 from the free throw line, 4-of-8 from three) propelled his team to a 93-86 win.
Edwards could not be stopped in the second half, scoring 25 points.
“We’re just fortunate to have probably the best guard in our league,” said Purdue head coach Matt Painter. “I think he’s established himself as the best guard in our league.”
The Illini were heavily outmatched in the free throw department as the Boilermakers shot 26-of-31 from the charity stripe and the Illini shot only 10 shots, making eight.
Illinois junior forward Leron Black tied his career-high in points with 28 on 12-of-25 shooting from the floor and 3-of-7 from deep.
Trent Frazier added 20 points, all of which came in the second and brought the spark the Illini needed in the second half when the Boilermakers were trying to pull away.
Some of the Illinois supporting cast showed up in this one. Te’Jon Lucas got the start and added 12 points (10 in the first half), while Da’Monte Williams arguably had his best game of the season with 11 points off the bench.
“I’m really proud of Te’Jon (Lucas). His fight, his commitment was off the charts,” Underwood said. “I’m very proud of Da’Monte (Williams). You have a man shooting six percent coming into the game and I’ve never once told him not to shoot because he keeps coming in every single day and shooting.”
Throughout the game, Purdue had several instances where it looked like it would pull away from Illinois, but the Illini fought off each spurt. Illinois’ comeback efforts started in the first half.
The Boilermakers were looking to take a double-digit lead into the break, but the Illini outscored them 10-3 in the final minutes of the first half and only trailed by five, 43-38.
Illinois was not plagued by halftime Thursday. Unlike previous games where the Illini came out flat and slowly died off in the second frame, Illinois fought.
No scoring drought occurred, no sloppy turnovers or lack of ball movement offensively — just good ol’ fashioned basketball.
“That was a good college basketball game,” Underwood said.
And then Frazier entered the building. The freshman scored eight straight points for the Illini to give them their first lead of the second half.
With the Illini trailing 56-53, Frazier, already feeling himself, had his man on a string. Frazier crossed left to right twice, both times, his man a step behind. As soon as he had the space, Frazier pulled up from deep and hit the shot to tie the game at 56.
“Gosh he’s special,” Underwood said. “He just had 20 points in a half against one of the best defensive teams in the country.”
Then Edwards told Frazier, ‘whatever you can do, I can do better,’ and blew by Frazier for the layup and-one, starting a quick 8-0 run by the Boilermakers to give themselves a 64-58 lead with under 12 minutes to go in the game.
“He’s a freshman, he’s a good player,” Edwards said. “He had some big plays, some good moves, I know he got me on one ball screen, so I was just letting him know I’m also coming too.”
Purdue continued to keep its distance from Illinois, and Edwards continued to make sure of that.
As the Illini looked set to go on a run thanks to a three from Williams and tough post shot from Black, Edwards responded by posterizing Frazier on the other end with a one-handed lefty slam. Underwood was forced to call a timeout with his team down seven.
But Illinois managed to cut the lead to four points with four minutes left in the game after freshman guard Mark Smith split a pair of free throws.
Right when the Boilermakers looked like they might pull away again, Black scored six straight points (layup and-one, and a three) to bring the deficit to five with 2:15 left in the game.
But clutch free throws from Edwards down the stretch and a panic that then ensued for the Illini offensively helped the Boilermakers close this one out.
While the outcome wasn’t in Illinois’ favor, Underwood can’t help but love the fight out of his team.
“We fought, we competed, we didn’t really have a lull tonight offensively,” Underwood said. “We’re gaining ground.”
Junior forward Michael Finke returned to the court after missing the past few games after suffering a concussion on Feb. 10. Finke played 15 minutes.
The Illini will be looking to get some momentum heading into the Big Ten Tournament when they head to New Jersey to close the regular season out against Rutgers.