8:00 PM ET, March 3, 2004
Mackey Arena, West Lafayette, Indiana
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. (AP) -- Illinois center Nick Smith didn't blame Purdue for not covering him as he drifted beyond the 3-point line in overtime Wednesday night."I wouldn't have guarded me either on those plays," Smith said.Either way, it was a mistake that cost the Boilermakers dearly.Smith hit two 3-pointers and Luther Head converted an offensive rebound as he was falling to the floor with nine-tenths of a second left to give Illinois (No. 20 ESPN/USA Today, No. 18 AP) its ninth straight win, 81-79 over Purdue.The big shots by Smith and Head put the Illini (21-5, 12-3) in first place in the Big Ten, one-half game ahead of Michigan State (12-4) and one game in front of Wisconsin (11-4).A win on Sunday at Ohio State would give Illinois the regular season conference championship.Purdue's Kenneth Lowe tied the game at 79 with a 3-pointer with 22 seconds left, but Roger Powell beat everyone down the floor and had an open look at a layup. His shot was off the mark, and Head followed it with an acrobatic one of his own to cap a thrilling game.Smith scored eight of his 12 points in overtime.The 7-foot-2 junior started the overtime with a 3-pointer for a 72-69 lead. He added another that bounced off the front of the rim and rolled in for a 77-73 lead with 2:01 to play."I told him, 'I believe in you and you're in here, so you better get it done," Illinois coach Bruce Weber said.He did, and it was too much for Purdue (17-11, 7-8) to overcome.David Teague answered with a 3-pointer for Purdue, and Lowe hit his 3-pointer 90 seconds later.That set up Head's heroics, and the Illinois players mobbed the court and celebrated with thousands of their fans who made the trip. The rowdy contingent sang the Illini fight song and shouted "We love Bruce!" as the Purdue crowd watched in stunned silence.Weber, the first-year coach who served as an assistant to Purdue coach Gene Keady for 18 years, soaked up the atmosphere."It was an unbelievable environment," Weber said. "It's a great feeling to come in here and get a win."Head had 19 points for the Illini, while Deron Williams had 16 points and 10 assists. Dee Brown added 15 points and seven rebounds.Lowe scored 23 points and Teague added 17 for Purdue, which shot 55 percent from the field, but came up one play short."We had a lot of people step up, but unfortunately for us this year, the ball's not bouncing our way," Teague said.The Illini looked like they were going to cruise to an easy victory when they took a 13-2 lead in the first 5 minutes. But Purdue started the second half with an 11-5 run to take a 41-35 lead.That set up an intense and action-packed final 21 minutes.The Illini slowly got back to what worked so well for them in the first half, going inside against Purdue's decimated front line, which has been without its top player, Chris Booker, since Dec. 21 for academic reasons."Our best big guy is not playing anymore," Keady said, referring to Booker. "But you play the hand you're dealt."Williams' 3-pointer with 4:05 to play gave Illinois a 67-63 lead, but the Boilermakers refused to go away.Brandon McKnight hit a jumper and Teague tipped in a loose ball to tie the game at 67 with 1:53 to play.McKnight's jumper as the shot clock expired sent the game into overtime tied at 69, but Purdue's mental lapse on defense ultimately cost them the game.The loss dealt a serious blow to Purdue's hopes for an NCAA tournament bid. After being thumped 82-46 at Wisconsin on Sunday, the Boilermakers were hoping that finishing the season with two wins at home would be enough to get them an at-large bid.Losing at home to Illinois means Purdue will have to make an even stronger showing in next week's Big Ten tournament, and possibly have to win it, to get in."This season's a long way from over," Keady said. "There are going to be a lot of teams that make a lot of people proud with their play over the next week and we can be one of them."The game marked an emotional homecoming for Weber. He was believed to be the heir apparent to Keady when he left to become head coach at Southern Illinois six years ago. Weber spent five years there, working to turnaround the Salukis' program, then took the Illinois job when Bill Self left for Kansas."It's half your life," Weber said of his 18 years on the Purdue bench. "So it's hard."I'll be honest, I dreamed of being a coach here, but not for the opposition."
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