By Jennifer Brugh | @JenniferRBrugh
Sports Capital Journalism Program
INDIANAPOLIS – Purdue’s five-game winning streak ended suddenly when the Boilermakers lost to Michigan State, 66-62, in the 2016 Big Ten Championship game. The noise from the Boilermaker fans in Bankers Life Fieldhouse was overwhelming at times during a second-half comeback, but the Boilermakers fell short because of an uncharacteristic performance in areas that had defined their success.
“We had a good fight to us today,” said Purdue coach Matt Painter. “Our execution wasn’t the best at times. But our guys really had a good fight to them. And we had our opportunities. We had some plays there at the end where we’re attacking the rim and doing some good things. And it just didn’t go our way.”
So what went wrong?
Purdue (26-8) had outscored the opposition’s bench in 31 of 33 games this season. With a conference championship on the line, the Boilermakers were outscored by the Michigan State bench, 21-14. The team that finished third in the league with a field goal percentage of 46.8 struggled to put the ball through the net. Purdue’s shooting percentage of 38.2 percent was the third-lowest of the season and the worst since the Boilermakers made 36.2 percent in a victory over Vanderbilt on Dec. 22.
In the first half, the Boilermakers made just 10 of 30 shots. A tough Michigan State defense also kept them from scoring from deep. The Boilermakers only attempted seven 3-pointers, making none of them.
Purdue’s “skyline” trio of senior A.J. Hammons, sophomore Isaac Haas and freshman Caleb Swanigan combined for 82 points in the previous two games. But in the championship game they finished with a total of 26 points. Hammons scored 11 points, 7.5 beneath his Big Ten tournament average. When asked why they came up short, Hammons spoke quietly. “We just have to want it in the end,” he said. “It’s the championship game, and you have to be there and ready.”
The last time these two teams met, on Feb. 9, Purdue outrebounded the Spartans, 42-39, in its 82-81 overtime victory at Mackey Arena. In Sunday’s championship game, Michigan State snagged 41 rebounds compared to Purdue’s 31, with only seven of them being on offensive boards.
“Usually when they get off with the rebound, they kick it out for a three and that went down for them,” said Purdue senior Rapheal Davis, who scored 3 points. “And when a good team gets off rebounding, they’re going to make you pay. And they made us pay, and that was the difference in this game.”
Purdue often double-teamed Michigan State senior Denzel Valentine, the Spartans’ leading scorer and Big Ten Player of the Year. In the first half, Valentine scored 10 points on 4-of-7 shooting. In the second half, Valentine was held to 2-of-6 shooting and 5 points.
When Hammons scored on a dunk and was fouled by Spartan senior Matt Costello with 3:39 to go, the Purdue fans were roaring. Hammons made a free throw to cut the Michigan State lead to 62-60. A free throw by Davis brought the Boilermakers within a point with 2:50 to play.
But from that point, Purdue’s missed opportunities became costly. Davis missed the second free throw. He missed a 3-point shot with 2:19 to play. Sophomore forward Vince Edwards made one of two free throws with 1:26 to go to bring Purdue within two points.
Swanigan missed a 3-point attempt with 43 seconds to play. Senior guard Johnny Hill had a layup blocked by Costello with 13 seconds to play, Purdue’s last best chance.
Edwards led the team in scoring with 19 points. He said the Boilermakers dug themselves a hole and waited too late.
“We all wanted to win, and we all wanted to get to this point,” Edwards said. “And we put ourselves in a good position to win at the end.”
Some of the Boilermakers sat with their heads in their hands in the dressing room. Some waited for media to leave so they could shower. Others packed their bags quickly. Haas, who finished with just 4 points, sat in front of his locker, his cheeks red, tears in his eyes.
When Hill was asked how he felt after the game, he said, “To be quite honest with you, kind of down. All of us in this locker room wanted it and all of us could have done something better. But we have to be mature right now, myself included.”
They would soon turn their attention to the NCAA tournament, where Purdue, a No. 5 seed, will meet Little Rock on Thursday at Denver. The winner of the first-round game will face Iowa State or Iona for a spot in a Midwest semifinal at Chicago.
“Things went their way,” Davis said of the Spartans. “We missed some shots….We’re going to make shots in the tournament. If we can get it back, hopefully we can play them down in Houston or make it as far as we can.”