No. 11 Illini fall in conference opener
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|Illinois guard and Sterling High School graduate Joseph Bertrand shoots over Purdue's Anthony Johnson during Wednesday's game at West Lafayette, Ind. The Illini lost 68-61. (AP)|
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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – So, this is how tough the Big Ten season will be.
Before heading into a buzz saw of a conference season, No. 11 Illinois' opener — on paper — was supposed to help ease them into the schedule against the some of the nation's best teams. Purdue had struggled with a young roster and poor shooting to limp into the conference tipoff with a .500 record.
That was hardly evident Wednesday night at Mackey Arena.
Illinois received an eye-opener with a 68-61 loss to the Boilermakers (7-6).
The Illini (13-2) have lost eight straight to the Boilermakers, a team Illinois' seniors never have beaten.
Illinois' second-half shooting was some of the worst of the season, missing easy shots and taking ill-advised ones. But they still had a chance.
They trailed 59-49 with 3 minutes, 25 seconds remaining after a 19-4 Boilermakers run as the Illini went more than 5 minutes without a field goal.
But then Brandon Paul woke up with back-to-back 3-pointers to close within 61-58. D.J. Richardson, who had missed his previous four 3-pointers, drained one with 28.4 seconds remaining to cut the Boilermakers' lead to 63-61.
After Jacob Lawson missed two free throws, D.J. Byrd slid on his knees to secure the rebound and call timeout before falling out of bounds with 21 seconds remaining.
Byrd then took the inbounds pass and hit a shot behind his head and drew a foul. The three-point play upped the lead to five.
After shooting 59 percent in the opening stretch, the Illini offense cooled off and Purdue played with more hustle for much of the game. Illinois shot only 35.6 percent, making 10 of 32 second-half shots.
The Illini made 5 of 11 first-half 3-pointers, but hit 5 of 15 in the second half.
The Boilermakers outrebounded Illinois 45-35, a stat the Illini have lost the last three games.
Illinois struggled to contain guard Terone Johnson, who scored a career-high 25 points.
Joe Bertrand scored 12 of his 14 points off the bench in the first half to help Illinois to a 33-31 halftime lead. Paul led the Illini with 15 points and Tracy Abrams added 12 points.
Richardson, who grabbed nine rebounds, continued to search for his shot. To typify his struggles, he made a half court shot just after the halftime buzzer.
It was one of the few he has made lately.
Richardson shot just 3 of 10, and finished 1 of 6 on 3-pointers.
Nothing gets easier for the Illini, who face No. 8 Ohio State on Saturday.
Star of game: Terone Johnson, Purdue, 25 points, 4 assists
Bertrand watch: 5-for-15, 14 points, 7 rebounds, 1 block, 1 steal