INDIANAPOLIS (AP)—Robbie Hummel is back to playing like his old self.
And with a healthy Hummel, No. 24 Purdue is playing like the team that was picked to win the Big Ten.
Hummel used a variety of quick shots, spinning moves, sharp passes and relentless defensive pressure to lead the third-seeded Boilermakers past second-seeded Illinois 66-56 in the conference tournament semifinals Saturday
Actually, he’s never looked better—or felt better.
“My back feels real good,” Hummel said of the stress fracture that slowed him much of the season. “It’s been good to get back out there. I think it’s just good for us to be on the floor together. The more time we have, the better we’ll be.”
The Boilermakers (24-9) have certainly proven that this weekend.
With Hummel missing four games and playing through pain in many others this season, the injury cost Purdue its regular-season title hopes. It entered Saturday’s game with three straight losses to the Fighting Illini (24-9) and had closed the regular season with its third set of back-to-back losses this season.
They’re making up for all those frustrations now.
Over the past two days, Hummel has been in sync and, not surprisingly, so has Purdue.
Hummel followed up a 20-point game in Friday’s quarterfinal win with 19 points, 12 rebounds and two steals against Illinois.
The Boilermakers have now hit 19 3-pointers and committed just 10 turnovers in two tourney games, setting up their first championship game appearance since 1998. Next up: Ohio State, an 82-70 upset winner over No. 7 Michigan State, the league’s regular-season champion.
“I think we’ve just been coming out with a lot of intensity,” said JaJuan Johnson, Purdue’s all-conference center. “We had a bitter taste in our mouths coming into this tournament. I think it’s important having these wins going into the NCAA tournament.”
Clearly, Hummel has made a difference, though.
He hit five of his first six shots Saturday, including all four of his 3-pointers, had six rebounds and two steals—in the first half.
Defensively, he was just as assertive. Hummel managed to shut down Illinois forward Mike Davis, who had 22 points in Friday’s quarterfinal win. Davis finished 2-of-8 from the field and had six points.
But Hummel’s presence also opened things up for his teammates.
After the opening flurry from long range, the Boilermakers exploited the suddenly soft middle. Johnson responded with 20 points and three blocks after playing only 17 minutes against Penn State, and guards E’Twaun Moore finished with nine points and Chris Kramer had eight, most on drives to the basket.
While it was clear the Fighting Illini (24-9) were struggling to defend Hummel, there was an explanation. Defensive catalyst Chester Frazier missed his second straight game since having surgery on his right hand Thursday, and this time they missed him.
“They beat us up,” Illini coach Bruce Weber said. “They didn’t let Mike Davis get open shots, they didn’t let Demetri (McCamey) get going. We haven’t had a game like this all year. That’s when Chester was a stabilizing factor.”
The result was downright ugly.
Illinois, the most successful team in Big Ten tourney history, shot just 35.1 percent from the field and had only two players reach double figures. Dominique Keller came off the bench to score 16 points and Calvin Brock, Frazier’s replacement, had 12.
But it was Purdue’s fast start that did in the Illini.
Hummel hit two 3s during an early 10-0 run to give the Boilermakers an 18-8 lead, then closed the half with a nifty catch-and-turn 3-pointer to end a 14-0 stretch that made it 37-17. It was Illinois’ third-lowest scoring half all season, and the Illini never recovered.
While they opened the second half on a 7-2 spurt to close to 39-24, Purdue answered with a 9-2 flurry that made it 50-28 with 12:12 to go.
Illinois never got closer than 12 until the game’s final basket.
Now, Hummel and his teammates have a chance to make amends for all those midseason problems—if they can win the school’s first tourney title.
“I think with the way the season ended, we were frustrated with that,” Hummel said. “We did come in here with a little bit to prove. We’re shooting the ball great. I think our offense is really flowing well and we’re getting good shots.”