With the return of junior guard Sasha Stefanovic’s 3-point shot and a strong defensive performance against Nebraska Saturday night, the Purdue men’s basketball team celebrated its second double-digit victory of the week on Saturday.
Since returning from his quarantine, Stefanovic had played limited minutes in two games without making a single shot, shooting 0-for-10 from the field and 0-for-7 from the 3-point arc.
The Boilers (15-8, 10-6 Big Ten) desperately needed that to change as Stefanovic has led the team from beyond the arc this season, making 43% of his 3-point attempts.
On Saturday night, he finally flipped the switch.
Stefanovic hit two quick back-to-back 3s midway through the second half, capping a 21-4 Boiler run. It put the game out of reach for the Cornhuskers (5-15, 1-12) and gave Purdue a spark it had been struggling to maintain all night, and the Boilers won 75-58.
“I haven’t made a shot in a month, so to see a shot go in felt kinda good,” Stefanovic said after the game. “I was just able to get more shots tonight. I was able to cash in on some of them.”
Throughout that 21-4 run, Stefanovic took over, hitting four of five 3-point attempts. The reliable 3-point shooter that Purdue missed was finally back.
“Once we were able to get stops in that little stretch, we were able to get scores on the offensive end. It really helped us propel that run,” Stefanovic said.
Stefanovic’s shooting was an integral part of Purdue’s success since the Husker defense aggressively swarmed junior forward Trevion Williams, the team’s leading scorer, under the rim.
With double-teams down low, Williams was forced to kick out to find open shooters around the perimeter. The Boilers, aside from Stefanovic, shot an inconsistent 6-24 from the arc.
Williams had few offensive opportunities, scoring only 9 points on 4-for-8 shooting. The Nebraska defense made sure he wouldn’t score 28 points like he did on Tuesday against Michigan State.
“Tre is our top player. He just had one bad night,” freshman guard Jaden Ivey said. “Just because he didn’t have a good night doesn’t mean the rest of the team can’t have a good night.”
Ivey led the Boilers on the stat sheet, putting up 15 points, seven rebounds, and three assists. But his biggest impact was setting the tone defensively in the first half. He finished the game with two blocks and three steals, and was constantly harassing Nebraska’s shooters.
“Those (steals) were big,” Ivey said. “Those are big for me to gain confidence. Defensively I got a steal, and I was scoring on the offensive end. It lifts me on the offensive end.”
His elite athleticism aided him on both sides of the court. Along with the forced turnovers, he shot efficiently in the first half — 5-for-7 for 13 points — and capped the half with an explosive highlight dunk, one of three on the night.
The team’s seven total dunks elevated the energy on the floor, and that spirit carried over into the postgame, with players laughing with each other during interviews and junior forward Aaron Wheeler joking that Ivey’s dunks were “weak.”
“He had one dunk and he gon’ talk his stuff,” Ivey laughed in response to Wheeler’s dig.
Purdue’s Sasha Stefanovic hit his first shot in a month late in a close game against Nebraska. Then another and another, and it wasn’t close anymore. But he was still hot. This is what fire looks like:https://t.co/pwyxcR665I— Gregg Doyel (@GreggDoyelStar) February 21, 2021
Similar to how Nebraska shut down Williams, the Boilers clamped down on Nebraska’s leading scorer, junior guard Teddy Allen. The Boilers held Allen to 6 points on the night, a dramatic decrease from his season average 17 points per game.
Aside from a half flurry of shots at the end of the first to cut the deficit to 3 and a strong second-half start, the Boilermaker defense challenged shots and forced the Cornhuskers into tough looks. At the end of the night, Nebraska made only 35% of its shots.
Nebraska’s bench put fear in Boilermaker hearts, though, scoring 37 of the team’s 58 points.
“A lot of their bench stepped up today, made a big impact,” Stefanovic said.
It will be a long five days before Purdue has its next game against Penn State. The Boilers look to build on Stefanovic’s resurrected jumpshot, along with another great defensive performance, to strengthen the team’s case for a high-seed NCAA tournament bid.
Penn State (7-11, 4-10) guard Myreon Jones, a tough scorer who averages 15 points per game and shoots 41% from 3-point range, could cause problems for Purdue’s perimeter defense. He will test the young Boilermaker team as it approaches postseason tournaments.