Purdue is ‘comfortable’ as it perfects its late-game poise

Purdue guard P.J. Thompson (11) shoots over Rutgers guard Issa Thiam (35) during the first half of a game Saturday in Piscataway, N.J. (By The Associated Press)
Purdue forward Vincent Edwards (12) drives to the basket past Rutgers guard Corey Sanders during the first half of a game Saturday in Piscataway, N.J. (By The Associated Press)
Purdue University men's basketball coach Matt Painter directs his team against Rutgers during the second half of a game Saturday in Piscataway, N.J. (By The Associated Press)
Purdue forward Matt Haarms, top, grabs a rebound over Rutgers guard Corey Sanders (3) during the second half of a game Saturday in Piscataway, N.J. (By The Associated Press)
Purdue forward Matt Haarms (32) congratulates and helps up Dakota Mathias (31) after Mathias took a foul against Rutgers during the second half of a game Saturday in Piscataway, N.J. (By The Associated Press)
Rutgers guard Geo Baker, center bottom, loses the ball as he is defended by Purdue guard Carsen Edwards (3) and Vincent Edwards (12) during the first half of a game Saturday in Piscataway, N.J. (By The Associated Press)

Purdue men’s basketball coach Matt Painter recently spoke of his team having the ability to be “comfortable in possession-type games,” which is a trait that the Boilermakers have been perfecting of late.

After spending six weeks essentially blowing the doors off of every opponent earlier this season, the No. 3-ranked Boilermakers have now put their moxie to the test repeatedly over the past four games, and given this week’s schedule, that probably won’t cease anytime soon.

Purdue (23-2, 12-0 Big Ten) hosts No. 17 Ohio State (20-5, 11-1) Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. (BTN), followed by traveling to 4th-ranked Michigan State (22-3, 10-2) Saturday at 4 p.m. (ESPN).

The top of the conference standings has the potential to look very differently a week from now.

“I think that it says a lot about the maturity of our group,” senior guard Dakota Mathias said recently of his team’s ability to win close games. “We learned a lot of hard lessons early on in the year.

“That is what intelligent teams do, you learn from your mistakes.”

The latest test for the Boilermakers came Saturday, as they held off league bottom-feeder Rutgers 78-76.

The Scarlet Knights did a lot of things well throughout the game, but in the end, Purdue defended well enough and showed the “maturity” that Mathias spoke of by hitting 12 of their final 14 free throw attempts in the final 82 seconds to seal the win.

“Rutgers had to fight,” Painter said following the win. “They had to spend a lot of energy, when you’re down 11, and they did. But they never took the lead or control of the game.

“… at the end, our free throw shooting was the difference. When you have all five starters shooting around 80 percent that ends up being the difference.”

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Purdue bent a lot over the final 20 minutes, as Rutgers rallied from down 12 in the second half to cut its deficit to a single point on two different occasions, but each time, one of Painter’s seniors made a play to keep Rutgers at bay.

That wasn’t a skill exhibited just Saturday; the Boilermakers have had to perform under pressure constantly in recent games.

From early December to mid-January, Purdue won 11 straight games by an average margin of 25-plus points per game. In only one of those 11 contests was it seriously challenged late into the game.

However, in each of the past four games (all Purdue wins), the Boilers have had to execute late at both ends of the court in order to garner a victory, which they have now done 19 consecutive times, a program record.

“Our guys,” Painter said recently, “whether it’s been the Louisville game (a 66-57 win), Northwestern (74-69), both Michigan games (a combined five points difference), Maryland at their place (80-75), we’ve been in some possession-type games. Indiana on the road (74-67), and we’ve been able to make plays on both ends.”

Against Rutgers, seniors P.J. Thompson, Isaac Haas and Vincent Edwards each scored to stretch a one-point game to eight over a 4:20 stretch, but the Boilers did their work defensively, as well.

While Purdue was producing offensively, it was also forcing the Scarlet Knights into multiple missed shots and a pair of turnovers during that important stretch.

“We matured,” Thompson said recently, “and realized that we’ve got to get stops on defense regardless of what is going to happen offensively.”

Purdue relies heavily upon its senior class, and with great reason. However, even the younger players grasp the importance of playing with poise in a game’s most critical moments.

“This is an every game thing,” Boilermaker redshirt freshman Matt Haarms explained recently. “There are always going to be tough spots in every game. It’s good for us. It shapes us as a group, those tough moments.

“We learn from that every single time.”

For more on college basketball, follow Tom Davis on Twitter at Tom101010 and on Facebook at Thomas Davis.

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