By Zach Wagner | @zachwagner22
Sports Capital Journalism Program
INDIANAPOLIS — Purdue center A.J. Hammons said that one of his biggest goals coming into his senior season was to be remembered as a champion rather than just another great player. After this season’s Big Ten Men’s Defensive Player of the Year and first team All-Big Ten selection posted 27 points, 11 rebounds and three blocked shots in Purdue’s 76-59 semifinal win over Michigan, he’s now just 40 minutes away from making that dream become a reality.
“It would mean a lot,” said Hammons. “I came back to get a ring, so it would mean a lot.”
The No. 4 Boilermakers (26-7) advanced to the championship game of the Big Ten Tournament to face No. 2 Michigan State, which defeated Maryland, 64-61. The appearance in the final is the first for Purdue since 2009 when the Boilermakers beat Ohio State, 65‐61, for their only conference tournament title.
On Feb. 9, Purdue got the better of Michigan State in overtime, 82-81, when Rapheal Davis made one of two free throws with 4.6 seconds left and Hammons wrestled the ensuing rebound away from several Spartan defenders to preserve the victory. Hammons finished that game with 19 points, had a season-high 13 rebounds and eight blocks to equal a career high.
“We know what it takes to beat those guys (Michigan State),” said Hammons. “They’re a great team, but I think we are playing some great basketball right now.”
When Purdue backup center Isaac Haas saw Hammons step off the team bus Saturday morning, he had a feeling his teammate was ready to go.
“I can always tell with A.J, whether or not he’s going to have a big game or not, before we even go out for warmups,” said Haas. “If he doesn’t have his big jacket on, with the hood over his head, then he’s usually locked in.
“Today, the hood was down.”
Haas’ instincts proved to be correct as Hammons scored 10 of the Boilermakers’ first 19 points, and more importantly to his coach, was engaged defensively.
“A.J. had of a couple changes (blocks),” said Purdue coach Matt Painter, who marked his 400th game as a head coach. “His presence in the lane made it tougher on them, no doubt.”
Trailing 38-30 at halftime, Michigan saw the latest opportunity to improve its NCAA tournament resume start to slip away over the first 2:41 of the second half when the Wolverines allowed Purdue to go on a 9-0 run. Of those nine points, seven came in the paint.
“We tried to establish our inside presence again,” said Painter. “Getting the ball inside back-to-back possessions, and I thought that was very important.”
Purdue ended the game with a 44‐28 advantage for points in the paint, and outrebounded Michigan, 41‐26. It’s the 31st time in 33 games that the Boilermakers have held an edge on the boards. Coming into today’s contest, Purdue ranked second in the nation (behind Michigan State) with a rebounding margin of plus-11.2.
“They’re a tough matchup with us with their size,” said Michigan coach John Beilein. “We felt if he (Hammons) got 40 and we could shut down the other guys, we could still maybe win the game. But we didn’t shut down the other guys quite enough.”
Nothing exemplified Michigan’s inability to guard Purdue in the post more than one moment in the first half. Michigan freshman Moritz Wagner, guarding Haas, put an elbow into Haas’ back, committing a foul on a simple post up. Wagner, overcome with frustration, turned and yelled at the official, “What am I supposed to do?”
After the game, Wagner continued to express that sentiment.
“It was just really irritating that we couldn’t do anything to stop them down low,” said Wagner. “Us not being able to stop their big guys decided the game.”
After the Boilermakers took a 17-point lead with 17:19 to go, Michigan was able to cut the Purdue lead to six points on a layup and foul shot by junior guard Derrick Walton Jr. with 7:35 to play. That was as close as Purdue would come, as Hammons guided Purdue to the finish line.
Hammons proceeded to score five of the next seven points for Purdue, helping the Boilermakers take a 69-57 lead with 3:41 to go.
“We’re fighting back and fighting back,” said Beilein. “And now all of a sudden you’re down 12 just like that.
“It was always going to be hard after that stretch.”
Painter spoke at length about how proud he was of his often maligned starting center. “He’s come a long way,” said Painter. “He’ll still frustrate you sometimes, but, man, he really did the job for us today.”
Not everything has gone perfect for Hammons this season. From Jan. 2 through 27, Hammons was criticized for a lackluster stretch of performances that saw him average 12.4 points over an eight-game stretch.
Hammons used the criticism as motivation to fuel his game. “Sometimes outside talk can get to you,” said Hammons. “But I just took it and I think it’s made me better.”
Painter went on to discuss some of the ways Hammons has matured.
“He has improved in those areas in terms of not just being there on time but being ready,” said Painter. “…He’s a really intelligent guy. He understands scouting reports. He knows what he’s doing out there. He’s very poised now.”
In the aftermath of his big performance, Hammons, sitting in front of his locker, was sporting the same passive expression that he always displays while competing on the court.
Hesitating for a second, a reporter asked, “Why always that expression?”
Hammons finally smiled. “I don’t like anyone to know what I’m thinking,” he said. “But I think it helps me a lot on the court.”