CHAMPAIGN — It's been mostly doom and gloom so far this season for the short-handed Illini.
But Sunday was different, as Illinois, without its two starting frontcourt players, took it to Purdue and its "skyline," a corps of extraordinary big men among the best in the Big Ten. The Boilermaker combo of A.J. Hammons, Isaac Haas and Caleb Swanigan were expected to dominate, but it was the Illini who dominated, outscoring the 20th-ranked Boilers by 14 in the second half to score a huge upset win, 84-70, at the State Farm Center.
With two reigning members of the All-Big Ten Defensive Team in Hammons and Rapheal Davis, Purdue entered Sunday's contest as the No. 1 defensive team in college basketball, holding opponents to just 35-percent shooting and an average of 59.8 points per game. But Illinois flipped that script, shooting 54.2 percent from the field and dropping 84 points, the most Purdue has allowed this season.
Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn were massive for the Illini, combing for 52 of the team's 84 points. Hill scored 30, also adding eight rebounds, three assists and a pair of blocks. Hill was 2-for-2 from 3-point range and went 10-for-14 from the free-throw line. Nunn finished with 22 points, hitting three 3s and grabbing five rebounds.
After the teams played to a 37-all tie after one half, it was Nunn and Hill who dominated the Illini's big second half. Nunn opened the second half on fire, hitting a 3-pointer, getting another bucket, taking a charge and hitting another 3, getting fouled and turning it into a four-point play. It made for a 9-0 individual run out of the break. Not long after, Hill — who scored 13 points in the first half — nailed a 3-pointer to give the Illini their biggest lead of the game to that point at 10 not even three minutes into the second half. Hill and Nunn accounted for the team’s first 20 points of the period.
And things continued similarly from there. Purdue didn't closer than eight in the final 12 minutes, and Illinois' lead was at double digits for the final eight minutes. Hill put the game away late with one made free throw after another.
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Given the opponent, the Illini's play on both ends of the court came as a surprise. Mike Thorne and Leron Black, Illinois' two starting big men, have been out weeks with injuries. Yet without them, Illinois shut down Purdue's monstrous front. Hammons scored 10 points and took just five shots. Swanigan finished with 12 points, only two in the second half. Haas had only six points. The Boilers finished with edges in rebounding and second-chance points, but the Illini did an excellent job containing them.
Purdue struggled on offense all around, shooting 40 percent from the field in the second half and shooting 31.8 percent from 3-point range on the game. The Boilers also had 16 turnovers that turned into 24 Illini points.
In addition to shooting so well from the field, the Illini shot 52.9 percent from 3-point range. They also went 23-for-28 from the free-throw line, with Hill doing the majority of that damage.
The win — and more importantly the performances on both offense and defense — was huge for Illinois following an ugly 79-54 loss to Michigan State last week. The victory sent the Illini to 9-8 on the season and 1-3 in league play, their first Big Ten win. Next up is a game against Nebraska next weekend.
Purdue dropped to 14-3 overall and 2-2 in conference play. The Boilers play Penn State on Wednesday.