WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Purdue's players finally figured out what Matt Painter wanted all season.
Toughness. Defense. Big plays late in the game.
The Boilermakers did it all Wednesday night, slowing the tempo with a strong defensive effort, finding enough scorers and rallying twice in the second half — once to take the lead and finally to hold off frantically-charging Illinois — in a 68-61 upset of the No. 11 Illini.
"It means a lot," Terone Johnson said after scoring a career-high 25 points. "It's kind of like coach said in the locker room, 'We just went out there and did it, so why couldn't we have been doing it before?'"
Purdue (7-6, 1-0 Big Ten) came into the conference opener with the worst record in the league and a schedule that had them facing Illinois at home, visiting No. 18 Michigan State and hosting No. 8 Ohio State by Tuesday.
They left Mackey Arena with their third straight win, a record over .500 for the first time all season and an eighth consecutive victory over Illinois dating to the second of three meetings during 2008-09.
Yes, the Boilermakers needed the win and they did it with their trademark grit, too.
The 6-foot-2 Johnson played big in the paint, making 9 of 18 shots, grabbing nine rebounds and finishing with four assists.
Senior D.J. Byrd who struggled for most of the first 30 minutes, made three of his four 3-pointers during a key 16-3 second-half run that flipped the game. He also grabbed the rebound off an errant free throw, called timeout with 21 seconds left from his knees before falling out of bounds, then grabbed the inbound pass and completed a three-point play to make it a two-possession game.
Byrd finished with 15 points, two assists and a beaming smile across his face.
"Terone hit me on the wing and it was in rhythm so I just caught it and shot it. The next one I caught it and shot it, and then I kind of got lucky on that one dropped in," Byrd said. "You've just got to keep shooting it like the next one's going in."
For Illinois, it was a rough start to conference play.
The Illini (13-2, 0-1) have now lost two of their last three games and their eighth straight Big Ten road game since winning at Northwestern almost exactly one year ago. The losing streak against Purdue the school's longest against a league foe since it lost nine straight to Purdue from 1996 to 2000, and the Boilermakers are the only Big Ten team this year's seniors have not beaten.
Worse, they looked nothing like the hot-shooting, big-scoring team they were during most of the non-conference schedule.
Brandon Paul finished with 15 points and made two 3-pointers in the late run that cut the deficit to two. Joseph Bertrand added 14 points and seven rebounds, while Tracy Abrams had 12 points, five assists and four rebounds.
But the Illini shot a dismal 35.6 percent from the field, compared with 38.5 percent from 3-point range, and just couldn't come up with the big plays after they rallied late.
"He made plays at the end of the game," Illini coach John Groce said of Byrd. "They get the ball on free-throw block out in a two-point game and that's unacceptable. That's on us. We've got to get the ball in that situation. One thing I will give our guys credit for is that we were down 10 and we fought and clawed our way back to get it to that free-throw block out, but our execution has got to get better."
Purdue needed everything to hang on for its biggest win of the season.
Illinois looked like it might end all of its misery when it opened the game 6 of 10 from the field and 5 of 7 from 3-point range. But the Illini only led 33-31 at halftime and just 45-39 with 12:03 to play.
That's when the Boilermakers cranked things up.
After Johnson scored on a putback, Byrd knocked down a 3 to make it 45-44. Freshman center A.J. Hammons followed that with a short hook shot to give Purdue the lead and then Byrd made the back-to-back 3s. When Johnson drove in for a layup Purdue led 55-48 with 6:36 to play.
Illinois came back, closing to 61-58 on Paul's 3 with 1:45 to go and getting within 63-61 after D.J. Richardson made his only 3 of the game with 28.4 seconds left.
The Illini still had a chance when Jacob Lawson missed two free throws, but Byrd snagged the rebound, called the timeout and converted the three-point play.
"Those are the types of plays we need from him," Painter said. "It's unfortunate we had the struggles we've had, but we just have to have some consistency. Hopefully, we can build off of this. We'll see."