CHAMPAIGN – A week ago, Illinois was a Big Ten afterthought, discussed mostly for its collapse in conference play.
The Illini are now one of college basketball’s hottest teams, winning three straight, inching closer to a .500 Big Ten record and polishing an NCAA tournament resume.
The week of wonder was capped with a 79-59 victory Wednesday night against Purdue before a joyous Assembly Hall crowd.
Groce pumped his fist as the Illini ended the first half with a defensive stop for a 43-29 halftime lead, the largest since leading Chaminade by 16 midway through the fifth game of the season.
Terone Johnson led the struggling Boilermakers (12-13, 5-7), losers of four of their last five, with 18 points.
The victory marked one of the few for Illinois (18-8, 5-7) that did not involve hand-wringing until the end, their last four outings each decided by six points or fewer.
Point guard Tracy Abrams, who returned to the starting lineup after coming off the bench against Minnesota, posted 13 points, seven assists and five rebounds. Sterling graduate Joseph Bertrand spearheaded the Illini’s 40-29 rebounding advantage by grabbing 12. He scored nine points in 30 minutes, and forward Tyler Griffey added 12.
Senior guard D.J. Richardson led the Illini with 18 points, including 8-for-8 from the free-throw line.
The victory was especially meaningful for the Illinois seniors. It marked the first in their careers against the Boilermakers, who had owned an eight-game winning streak against Illini.