February 4, 2010

Hoosiers comeback cut short

Buzzer beaters have been unkind to the Hoosiers all season long and Thursday night's rivalry against No. 8 Purdue was no different.

Just five days following Indiana's heartbreaking loss at the horn to Illinois, IU came out on the wrong side of the final decision again. This time, the Hoosiers had the chance to be the hero, but Verdell Jones' 25-foot heave at the buzzer rimmed out, giving Purdue the 78-75 victory. The win marks the first victory for the Boilermakers in Assembly Hall since 1999, ending a decade-long losing streak in Bloomington.

The Hoosiers came out strong in the first half, as they have done for much of the season. After enduring an early Purdue run, sophomore Tom Pritchard showed flashes of dominance in the paint, scoring 13 points on 6-of-7 shooting. He also limited junior big man JuJuan Johnson to 10 points, most of which came from beyond the free throw line. But perhaps Pritchard's most important stat was the forward picked up just one foul in the opening 20-minute frame, allowing him to play 19 minutes.

For the first half, Pritchard's offensive looks came with ease as the IU guards used solid dribble penetration to break down Purdue's overactive perimeter defense. The drive gave way to open looks both inside and outside, allowing the Hoosiers to shoot 51.6-percent in the first half. Indiana took the lead into the halftime break, up 47-43.

But the Boilers showed their experience to start out the second half, sprinting out on a 14-4 run to take a six-point lead, their largest of the game. Purdue also shored up its defense in the closing half, stalling Indiana's offense for lengths at a time.

"You just cannot have a lull against a team like Purdue," Indiana head coach Tom Crean said. "We had one to start the second half. That's not what beat us, but we didn't have the same intensity defensively at the end of the half and we had to do different things defensively against this team because they are so good."

After dominating the opening frame, the Boilers did not allow their first half bugaboo to come back to haunt them again. Prudue's interior defense did not allow Pritchard to attempt a shot in the second half, as he saw continuous double teams and pressure late.

"I think Tom didn't force anything and was the beneficiary of being really aggressive in the way (Purdue) went after ball screens.," Crean said. "We felt very good all night with Tom being the facilitator. Even though we would like for him to be more aggressive, I was really proud of the way he played in the first half."

Despite the Boilers taking away Pritchard, the Hoosiers showed tireless resiliency, overcoming the deficit and eventually taking a lead following Jordan Hulls' fast break three-pointer, 69-66 with 5:44 to play.

The lead would be short-lived for the Hoosiers, though. The experience of Robbie Hummel and Johnson proved in the clutch as the duo combined for 14 of Purdue's final 16 points. Both players finished with 21 points on the evening.

One the flip side for the Hoosiers, it would be the team's inexperience that showed late as Hulls, Derek Elston and Jones all missed the front end of one-and-one free throws. Those empty offensive trips came back to bite Indiana, as the team went nearly five minutes without scoring a point.

Despite the offensive stuttering, the Hoosiers had a chance to win the ballgame late. After Hulls outwrestled two Purdue players for a loose ball rebound, Indiana had the ball trailing three with 22.9 remaining. Using a pick, Jones found a seam down the left side of the lane and drove for the lay-up, but was partially blocked by senior defensive specialist Chris Kramer. The Hoosiers were forced to foul Hummel, down 77-75.

Instead of his normally reliable free throw shooting though, Hummel hit just one of two from the charity stripe, giving Indiana one last shot to send the game to overtime. Jones, who finished with a game-high 22 points, had a clear look at a three-pointer from 25-feet out, but the ball rimmed out to give the Boilers the three-point victory. It also sent the young Hoosiers home with another close and demoralizing Big Ten loss.

"I am very confident in my leadership ability to get this thing righted and to keep them on the path I think they need to be on," Crean said. "This is not a moral victory night for Indiana. We had an incredible crowd, an incredible atmosphere, a great rivalry game and all those things. But we are full steam ahead with where we need to be."

Next up, the Hoosiers (9-12, 3-6 Big Ten) will travel to Northwestern (15-7, 4-6) on Sunday to take on the Wildcats, who are still in the hunt to earn their first-ever invite to the NCAA Tournament. The game will begin at 2:30 p.m.

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