CHAMPAIGN — In the world of college basketball, Purdue has earned the right to carry a banner that says, “Welcome to the Land of Giants.”
Isaac Haas (7-foot-2, 290 pounds) and Matt Haarms (7-3, 250) are tandem skyscrapers and the attention they draw is immense.
So it was interesting to see one of Purdue’s smallest players rip the University of Illinois to shreds Thursday night at State Farm Center. Carsen Edwards, a 6-1 ball of muscle, was the unstoppable force that scored 40 points as No. 9-ranked Purdue held off a determined Illini team, 93-86.
With the two big men combining for just 10 points and five rebounds, and with senior leader Vincent Edwards still in street clothes with a sprained ankle, Purdue turned to Carsen Edwards, the sophomore from Atascocita, Texas.
Edwards made 11 of 19 shots, hit four 3-pointers and was 14-for-16 from the free throw line. Despite his size, he threw down two king-sized dunks that made a crowd of 14,673 gasp.
Edwards’ coach, Matt Painter, thought his little guard was the perfect player rising to the occasion at the perfect time.
“(Illinois) plays so hard defensively and they’re so different than anyone else you play,” Painter said. “They compete hard and they get in the passing lanes and make you make individual plays.
“We just happened to have the best guard in our league.”
Calling Edwards the best guard in the Big Ten will raise some eyebrows, but Painter defended his claim.
“He’s been consistent all year,” Painter said. “If you look at (Michigan State’s) Miles Bridges as a forward and (Ohio State’s) Keita Bates-Diop as a forward, when you get to the guards I think he has established himself as the best.”
Despite the loss that dropped Illinois’ record to 13-17 overall and 3-14 in the Big Ten, applause saluted the Illini at the finish. It may have been Illinois’ best overall effort of the season.
Leron Black continued his torrid scoring in February. He led Illinois with 28 points and has scored at least 20 in four straight games. Trent Frazier scored all of his 20 in the second half. He also had five steals. And Illinois found scoring from two unlikely sources.
Te’Jon Lucas, who replaced Aaron Jordan in the starting lineup, scored 12 points and added six rebounds and five assists. And Da’Monte Williams, delivering one of his best games of the season, scored 11 points and added four rebounds and two assists. Each was 2-for-2 from 3-point range.
The game boiled down to Illinois missing some open looks from 3 and its inability to get stops against a Purdue team that uses those big men to its advantage, even on a night when they don’t do a lot of scoring.
“I keep telling our guys to get the ball to Isaac,” Painter said. “I tell them to drive it into the paint. People are going to overdo things with Isaac and it creates opportunities for others.”
Purdue took advantage by making 11 of 23 3-pointers, including four each by Edwards and Dakota Mathias.
Illinois had a chance to be within two at the half but Mark Smith’s 3-pointer, at first called good by the officials, was ruled too late when examined in video review. So the Purdue edge was 43-38.
Despite its difficulty getting stops, Illinois chipped away and when Frazier hit consecutive 3s, the game was tied 56-56.
But Purdue always found an answer. In this case, Edwards hit a 3, freshman Nojel Eastern scored on a drive and Ryan Cline hit a 3-pointer to open a 64-56 lead with 12:34 to play.
Illinois still kept coming. When Black hit a 3-pointer to cut Purdue’s lead to 86-81 inside of three minutes, the Illini had a chance to make it a one-possession game when Black went up for another jumper. But he missed and even though teammate Greg Eboigbodin grabbed the rebound, Purdue ripped it from his hands and Carsen hit two free throws at the other end.
Purdue (25-5, 14-3) has only a home game remaining Sunday against Minnesota before heading to New York City and the Big Ten Tournament next week.
Illinois finishes on the road Sunday at Rutgers and will stay out east for the tournament.