MINNEAPOLIS (AP)—The bumps and bruises are healing and the defense is as nasty as ever.
That sluggish start to the Big Ten season is in Purdue’s rearview mirror now. The Boilermakers are back.
Behind relentless defensive pressure, and 19 points and five blocks from JaJuan Johnson, No. 18 Purdue banged its way to a 70-62 victory over No. 21 Minnesota on Thursday night.
E’Twaun Moore added 16 points for Purdue (15-4, 4-2), which won its fourth straight conference game after an 0-2 start. The Boilermakers entered charged-up Williams Arena with the second-ranked field goal percentage defense in the country and made life miserable all evening for the Gophers (16-3, 4-3).
“We’re starting to really come together,” coach Matt Painter said. “It’s fun to watch and it’s fun to coach.”
Al Nolen had 17 points on 3-for-14 shooting and four steals for Minnesota, which shot a season-low 27.6 percent, including 3 for 19 from 3-point range, to lose its second in a row.
The Gophers trailed nearly the entire game and were run out of The Barn by a 17-6 spurt midway through the second half. Lewis Jackson scored seven points in the surge and Johnson punctuated it with an emphatic dunk to get the Boilermakers rolling toward another win.
“Their defense really took a toll on us,” Nolen said. “We couldn’t get the ball in the basket to save our lives.”
Purdue looked shaky early in the conference season because of injuries to floor leader Robbie Hummel and defensive specialist Chris Kramer that contributed to losses to Illinois and Penn State. Both are healing up now, and Purdue is looking more like the team that was picked as a favorite to win the Big Ten.
“Those first two games kind of opened our eyes,” Johnson said. “It gave us the sense of urgency that we really needed. I think we are just really focused right now.”
Still slowed by a back injury, Hummel came off the bench and scored five points. But with Moore, Johnson and Jackson going a combined 16-for-27 against a humbled Minnesota defense, Purdue cruised.
“We dug ourselves a hole, but we haven’t felt sorry for ourselves,” Painter said. “We’ve battled back.”
The Gophers take pride in the defensive end as well. Coach Tubby Smith’s crew entered the night second in the Big Ten in field goal percentage defense at 39 percent, and the Gophers had 12 steals and 10 blocks in this one.
But Purdue shot better than 50 percent for most of the game to overcome 17 turnovers.
The Gophers have been hampered by slow starts for much of the season, and Thursday night was no different. They missed 13 of their first 18 shots and committed 11 turnovers in the first 15 minutes to fall behind 27-15.
Moore made 5 of 7 shots in the period, but the Boilermakers missed five free throws and turned the ball over nine times to allow Minnesota to hang around at 36-29.
As the game wore on, the Gophers grew frustrated. Leading-scorer Lawrence Westbrook missed six of his eight field goals, and two of those were on forced drives to the basket in transition midway through the second half that were swatted away by Purdue’s superb help defenders.
Following those blocks, Jackson scored on a drive to the hoop and Keaton Grant hit a 3-pointer from the top of the key to give the Boilermakers a 47-35 lead with 11:36 to go.
Smith lamented his team’s apparent unwillingness to get the ball inside to young 7-footers Ralph Sampson III and Colton Iverson.
“It was very uncharacteristic of guys trying to do too much,” Smith said. “We’ll get that resolved.”
For a team that has designs on an NCAA tournament bid, this was a tough defeat. It was Minnesota’s second home loss of the season, the other coming to Michigan State. With five of the next seven games on the road, the 16-1 start that had them flying high is in danger of going to waste.
“Dealing with prosperity is a lot tougher than dealing with adversity sometimes,” Smith said. “You start thinking it’s me doing it and it’s really the team. We need to learn that we’re only as good as our teammates.”