It should have come as no surprise that Purdue big man JaJuan Johnson was ready to make amends for a disappointing outing in the first meeting between the Boilermakers and Buckeyes. Johnson scored just four points before fouling out, powerless to help his team hold off the hard-charging Evan Turner in what ended up being an Ohio State victory. No such luck this time around as he and his teammates came out hot, making their first six shots on the way to building a 36-23 halftime lead. But while the Buckeyes attempted to follow the script of the first meeting in fighting back into the game Johnson proved to be the foil, making 11 of 17 shots on his way to 24 points in the 70-67 Purdue victory. E'Twaun Moore added 15 points and Keaton Grant 13, making up for a four-point performance from Robbie Hummel.
Evan Turner, who for some reason wasn't the voter's choice for Big Ten Player of the Year in an ESPN.com poll, led the way for Ohio State with 29 points but he didn't receive much scoring help on Wednesday (the Buckeyes also finished with just six assists). But while Johnson and Turner essentially battled each other to a standstill Purdue head coach Matt Painter credited Grant for being the difference-maker. "Keaton was the difference in the game," said Coach Painter. "When they put so much pressure on guys like Robbie Hummel, it's important for someone to step up and make shots and he did. It also left JaJuan Johnson open when they put extra pressure on our other guys and he played well for us (quote courtesy of Ohio State University)."
The victory keeps Purdue tied with Michigan State in the loss column atop the Big Ten standings with a game in hand, and they also host the Spartans in West Lafayette on February 28th. Just like Johnson going into this one it's hard to see Hummel putting up many more four-point outings, but the added production from Grant is something that Purdue's been looking for much of the season. And if he can provide consistent scoring as a supplement to what the Boilers should get from the likes of Hummel, Johnson and Moore a trip to Indianapolis is well within their reach.
Three Key Happenings
1. Saint Louis knocks off Rhode Island; could the Billikens be in play for an NCAA bid? The Billikens provided one more reason why they shouldn't be seen as simply a possible spoiler in the Atlantic 10. Their non-conference resume isn't the most impressive but Rick Majerus' "Baby Billikens" could very well play their way into the NCAA Tournament given their schedule down the stretch. Days after beating Dayton in double overtime SLU added a Rhode Island squad that now may be in a bit of trouble to the list of victims, coming back from a second half double-digit deficit to win 62-57. Kwamain Mitchell scores 11 of his team-high 13 in the second half as the Billikens moved to 14-1 at Chaifetz Arena. As a team SLU shot 59.1% from the field in the second half while holding URI to 37% and 35.5% for the game. The Rams essentially took control of the game due to turnovers, outscoring SLU 12-0 in points off turnovers in the first half to take a 30-24 lead into the intermission.
But they were outscored 17-5 in that statistical category in the second half, and with four players scoring in double figures there wasn't one guy in particular that URI could focus on defensively. Akeem Richmond led the Rams with 18 points but no other player scored more than seven, and when the Billikens took him away Rhody sputtered offensively. This win has to put SLU in play for an at-large when considering their final five games. Three of them are at home, including games against Xavier and Temple. Add in the finale at Dayton and a 2-1 record (combined with wins over UMass and Duquesne) could put this young squad in a good spot entering the Atlantic 10 Tournament.
2. Louisville outlasts Notre Dame in double overtime. It's too difficult to call games between Big East bubble teams as "elimination" games but given their loss to St. John's on Sunday night Notre Dame may be in serious trouble following their 91-89 loss to Louisville in double OT. Samardo Samuels led all scorers with 36 points and it wouldn't be unfair to think that the Irish would have been better equipped to slow him down had Luke Harangody been healthy enough to play. Tim Abromaitis led Notre Dame with 29 points while Ben Hansbrough (21) and Tory Jackson (19) also scored but they were no match inside for the Cardinals, who outscored the Irish 30-20 in the paint. Also, the strategy to guard Samuels one-on-one led to four Notre Dame players fouling out, and that proved to be the difference with the Cards refusing not to go inside.
"Obviously we had an advantage and wanted to wear them out," said head coach Rick Pitino. "We weren't going to stop going inside. Every play we were running was going through him. If we were going to get something it was going to be from him (quote courtesy of the University of Louisville)." With a player the caliber of Samuels inside Louisville needs to on occasion remind themselves that it's better to get him the ball instead of tossing up contested shots on the perimeter. Now with wins over Syracuse and Notre Dame the pieces are there for Louisville to take care of business in their last five games (Coach Pitino noted after the game that winning three would put them in a good spot). Whether or not they remember their biggest advantage (Samuels) will determine whether or not they actually do.
3. UNLV falls to Utah for the second time this season; are the Rebels in trouble? Lon Kruger's team has now lost three straight games, and while they still should be an NCAA Tournament team they need to make sure that the losing skid ends in their next contest. The problem on Wednesday night in Salt Lake City: no one outside of Tre'Von Willis stepped up offensively. Willis led all scorers with 32 points but no one else had more than nine (Chace Stanback) in the Utes' 66-61 victory. Willis going off on Utah is no surprise as he's scored 59 points against them this season, but what happened on Wednesday is essentially a carbon copy of Utah's 73-69 win in Las Vegas on January 16th.
Stanback scored 14 but no other Rebel scored more than seven; Jim Boylen's team has been more than happy to let Willis get his provided they shut everyone else down. And outside of Willis UNLV struggled against the Utes to create their own offense in both games. Oscar Bellfield scored six points in each game and had more turnovers (five) than assists (four) in the two meetings and Anthony Marshall also struggled. But the schedule does offer them ample opportunities to get back on the right track. UNLV closes out with three of their last four (Colorado State, TCU and Wyoming) at home with a trip to Air Force being the lone road contest. UNLV will be in the tournament; it's simply a matter of shoring things up offensively and they'll be fine.
Top Three Games
1. Louisville 91, Notre Dame 89 (2OT) See above.
2. Purdue 60, Ohio State 57 See above.
3. Kansas State 91, Nebraska 87 This one ended up closer than it should have been, with K-State version of "A Comedy of Errors" allowing the Huskers to tie the game with less than a minute remaining on a Ryan Anderson three-pointer. But the Wildcats were able to win thanks to a pair of free throws from Chris Merrieweather with 24.5 seconds remaining followed by a Denis Clemente layup to sew things up. Clemente scored 18 of his 21 in the second half while Dominique Sutton also scored 21, and Anderson led all scorers with 22 points.
Three Notable Performances
1. F Samardo Samuels (Louisville) 36 points and six rebounds in forty-five minutes to lead the Cardinals to their double-overtime win over Notre Dame.
2. G Jimmer Fredette (BYU) Fredette lit up Colorado State, scoring 36 points while also accounting for six rebounds and five assists in the Cougars' 92-70 victory.
3. G David Kool (Western Michigan) Kool is one of the best guards in the nation few people talk about and he went to work again on Wednesday night, scoring 33 points in the Broncos' 90-81 win over Northern Illinois.