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Illinois falls to Purdue in Big Ten opener

A.J. Hammons Tracy Abrams

A.J. Hammons, Tracy Abrams

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Updated: January 2, 2013 11:59PM

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — It’s hard to call the Big Ten opener a ‘‘must-win’’ game, but it sure felt like that for No. 11 Illinois on Wednesday.

The Illini failed to retain the momentum they had built in an
attention-grabbing first two months, falling to Purdue 68-61. It was a disappointing turn in a season that was showing so much promise.

After Illinois (13-2, 0-1) lost to the Boilermakers (7-6, 1-0) for the eighth consecutive time overall and for the fourth time in a row in Mackey Arena, the schedule looked tougher than it did hours earlier.

The Illini host No. 8 Ohio State on Saturday before No. 9 Minnesota comes to Assembly Hall on Wednesday. A loss at rebuilding Purdue reminded everyone how hard it is to win on the road in the Big Ten.

‘‘The challenging thing about this league and the beauty of this league, tomorrow when you wake up, the next one is coming right at you,’’ Illinois coach John Groce said. ‘‘Guys who stay on the mat get trampled in this league. You’ve got to man up. I expect our guys to do that. We’ve got an older team.’’

When the Illini scored eight consecutive points to open a 45-39 lead, they appeared to grab control. But the Boilermakers put together a 20-4 run behind the long-range sharpshooting of guard D.J. Byrd, who sank three three-pointers in the spurt, to grab a 59-49 lead.

Brandon Paul later made two three-pointers, and a three-pointer by D.J. Richardson pulled Illinois to 63-61 with 31 seconds left. But on Purdue’s ensuing possession, Byrd snatched the rebound of his own missed free throw and called a timeout from his knees while falling out of bounds.

‘‘That was the game right there,’’ Illini forward Tyler Griffey said. ‘‘It’s tough, but we can’t let it roll into a couple of more. We’ve got a big one on Saturday. Hopefully we won’t make it [turn] into two or three.’’

Paul (15 points), Joe Bertrand (14 points, seven rebounds) and Tracy Abrams (12 points) led Illinois. Terone Johnson (career-high 25 points, nine rebounds) and Byrd (15 points) carried the Boilermakers, who shot 46 percent from the field and 50 percent from three-point range in the second half.

‘‘We just went out there and did it, so why couldn’t we have been doing it?’’ Johnson said. ‘‘People stepped up. They took coming into the Big Ten season kind of personal. It looks good for us going into the next few games.’’

Purdue grabbed 10 offensive
rebounds in the second half and held a 45-35 edge on the glass.
Rebounding and defense continue to be the Illini’s biggest concerns.

‘‘Some people learn by seeing, some people learn by listening, some people by peeing on the electric fence,’’ Groce said. ‘‘On the free-throw block-out, I’ve been killing them on film. This is going to hurt us. This is going to hurt us.’’

Illinois entered the game as the biggest surprise in the Big Ten. In an informal media poll before the season, the Illini were picked to finish ninth. Nevertheless, they couldn’t put away this victory in a gym where they haven’t won since 2008.

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