WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. (AP)—Top-ranked Illinois found itself in an unfamiliar position heading into halftime at Purdue. The Illini were behind.
Dee Brown made sure that didn’t last long.
After not taking a single shot in the first half, Brown scored all 14 of his points in the second half to lead the Illini to a 68-59 victory over Purdue on Saturday.
“I told him to play like you’re No. 1,” Illinois coach Bruce Weber said. “I said, ‘Somebody has to step up and make plays.’ Dee took it to heart.”
He certainly did.
Trailing at halftime for the first time this season, the Illini opened the second half with a 23-6 run to take control.
Brown hit three 3-pointers during the surge, the last giving Illinois a 56-45 lead with just over 9 minutes to play. He also turned up the heat defensively, creating turnovers and opportunities in transition for the quicker, more talented Illini.
“We’re so balanced, I think they forgot about me,” Brown said. “I had no points, no shots, then I started hitting them. In the second half, they started to play me a little softer and I shot the ball.”
Luther Head scored 15 points for Illinois (16-0, 2-0 Big Ten), which came into the game outscoring opponents by 20.5 points a game, but this one was no gimme.
Matt Kiefer had 17 points and six rebounds to lead Purdue (4-8, 0-2), which gave Illinois all it could handle for a little more than a half.
Illinois was uncharacteristically sluggish in the first half, missing open layups and 3-pointers, getting into foul trouble and lacking the crisp ball movement on offense that has made the Illini unbeatable so far this season.
“We were behind on everything,” Weber said. “We were the team on its heels and they were the team on their toes. We haven’t been in this situation for a long, long time.”
The Illini trailed for most of the half and were down 39-33 at halftime to the inspired Boilermakers, who quieted the thousands of Illinois fans who made the trip to West Lafayette.
Purdue was aggressive from the opening tip after receiving a tongue-lashing from coach Gene Keady following another lackluster effort in a loss to Wisconsin on Wednesday.
After that game, Keady openly wondered if he has waited too long to step aside as coach, suggesting that the team needs new blood and a new face to take over a team he may have lost.
The Boilermakers showed on Saturday that they are still behind their beloved coach, who is in his 25th and final season on the Purdue bench.
“We have what we call ‘4-minute wars’ at the start of each half,” Keady said. “We started out well, but we’ve had a tendency to peter out. We don’t have the energy to finish those wars. But we’re making progress.”
Kiefer scored 13 points in the first 10 minutes, including an eye-opening drive and dunk that gave the Boilermakers a 25-19 lead. He injected some much-needed life into a Purdue fan base that has grown weary of the team’s failures this season.
On their next possession, Kiefer drove the lane and dished to Carl Landry for a dunk that whipped the crowd into a frenzy.
Landry had 10 points and five rebounds in the first half and finished with 15 points.
“We knew (Purdue) would raise their level of play,” said Weber, who served as an assistant at Purdue under Keady for 18 years. “Dee and Luther really stepped up and made some plays and all of a sudden they are the ones on their heels and they kind of reverted to how they’ve been playing the last few games.”
The Illini, who came into the game shooting 51 percent from the field, shot just 38 percent in the first half while Purdue shot 57 percent. It was just about the reverse in the second half as the undermanned Boilermakers were overwhelmed by Illinois’ depth and Brown’s tenaciousness.
“I think it kind of shocked them the way we played,” Keady said. “It was probably a good wakeup call for them, but hey, the got the ‘W.”’
Roger Powell had two huge dunks in the second half, including one off an inbounds play underneath the basket that swung the momentum back to Illinois. After a layup by Kiefer brought Purdue within 59-50, Powell converted a three-point play to extend the lead.
“We just came out so fired up, it really didn’t matter what they were doing,” Head said. “We knew we were going to get this win.”
Illinois is off to its best start since the 1988-89 team began the season 17-0. That team won the Big Ten championship and advanced to the Final Four.
The only other Illinois team to start the season with 16 straight wins was 1914-15, when the Illini won the national championship.