After losing a close game to Michigan State, the Purdue Boilermakers are back at home to take on the Illinois Fighting Illini.
The Boilers (15-9, 6-5 Big Ten) are currently on a three-game losing streak and are tied for sixth in the Big Ten standings. The conference race is very tight, with Purdue one game behind fourth and two behind third.
There is also a tie at the top of the conference between No. 10 Maryland and No. 20 Rutgers. Each game is significant, and the margin for error is very small.
Purdue has a chance to turn the season around against Illinois (9-13, 1-10). The Illini sit at dead last in the conference and are currently on an eight-game losing streak. The Boilers have played very well at home, where they are 11-2, except for the blowout loss to Nebraska.
Three out of the next four games for Purdue take place at home and are against opponents that are near the bottom of the conference standings. A win against Illinois could be the start of a stretch where the Boilermakers climb up the Big Ten standings.
“This is the time you’re supposed to be having fun and elevate your game. We can’t wait to get back on the court on Thursday and use the springboard of Michigan State,” head coach Sharon Versyp said.
“Just like anywhere in the country, your conferences are tough. You’re going to lose some of those. It’s how you win or lose those. I think the Michigan State game will give us a big boost going against Illinois.”
Historically, Purdue has had an advantage over the Illini. Tonight’s game marks the 75th all-time meeting between the two teams where the Boilers hold a 57-17 series record. At Mackey Arena, Purdue has won 29 of 34 games. The Boilermakers have won the last five matchups between the two teams, which is their longest active mark against any Big Ten opponent.
Junior forward Ae’Rianna Harris recently became the first junior to ever reach 700 rebounds at Purdue. Tonight’s game against Illinois could be another career milestone for the forward. She enters the game with 979 career points, just 21 shy of 1000. Coming off one of her best season performances ever, where she had 20 points, 13 rebounds and five blocks, there is a good chance she may hit the mark against Illinois
“I let the game come,” Harris said. “It will always be a goal but if you think about it, that’s when it seems harder to obtain.”
With an injury to freshman guard Kayana Traylor, who is a game time decision against Illinois, sophomore guard Lyndsey Whilby has stepped up. The guard has totaled 19 points in the past two games after being out with the flu.
“We need her to attack with (Traylor) being out,” Versyp said. “That’s been the big lift rather than going east to west, they go north to south. She is our best one-on-one player when she’s applying. That’s been great for us to see. Understanding when she needs to do it finally has clicked within the offense.”
The Illini are led by junior guard Brandi Beasley and senior forward Alex Wittlinger. Although its record may not reflect it, Illinois is a scrappy team that plays hard. They have lost a lot of close of games and shouldn’t be overlooked.
“You can’t look at their record,” Versyp said. “If you just watch them play, how they’re competing and how they work, you would think they would be in the middle of the pack.”
The two teams will face off at 7 p.m. tonight in Mackey Arena.