WEST LAFAYETTE — Gold and black confetti fluttered from the rafters at the end of the night, commencing a celebration that had been years in waiting.
The party for Purdue’s Big Ten-best 23rd conference championship began as soon as the clock expired, forcing Indiana to walk through the mess of paper scraps on the way back to the visitor’s locker room in the bowels of Mackey Arena. The Hoosiers had a chance to play spoiler on Tuesday in a hostile building. Instead, they played themselves out of an opportunity to upset their in-state rival in an 86-75 loss to the No. 16 Boilermakers.
While Indiana (16-14, 6-11) retreated to make sense of another defeat, the program’s eighth in the past 10 games, Purdue players got their hands on the Big Ten trophy — the same award IU paraded around this time last year.
The Hoosiers have fallen far from that peak in the ensuing 12 months, unable to keep pace with a Boilers’ group that was focused on clinching the conference crown.
Indiana was once again prone to the kinds of ridiculous and unfocused turnovers coach Tom Crean has lamented seemingly all season, committing 11 errors in the first 20 minutes. IU didn’t shoot its first free throws of the night until the 11:02 mark of the second half and saw both of its primary bigs, Thomas Bryant and De’Ron Davis foul out.
“I cannot tell you how bad it hurts as a human being, as a leader of them for them not to get the results a lot of times for the work that they put in,” Crean said. “It hurts everybody.”
During the last month, as IU has played tight games against the top teams in the middling Big Ten conference, Crean has spoken about how his team is only a few plays and a couple possessions from getting over the hump.
In front of a raucous Purdue crowd, the Hoosiers were unable to take the steps necessary for finding that breakthrough — even as Purdue (24-6, 13-4) struggled early to find its offensive footing.
Indiana offered virtually nothing new in its penultimate regular season game, save for the revelation that little-used scholarship forward Tim Priller was capable of providing decent minutes in a pinch.
Otherwise, Indiana once again looked the part of a disconnected team unable to string together enough stretches of decent play.
James Blackmon Jr. led IU with 16 points, while Josh Newkirk and Devonte Green each added 13 points. Caleb Swanigan led Purdue with 21 points, while Dakota Mathias scored 19.
Green’s 3-pointer at the 11:05 mark gave IU its first — and only — lead at 17-14. From there, Purdue swung back with an 8-0 run fueled entirely by Mathias, who had 17 points at halftime. Mathias’ scoring swing forced IU coach Tom Crean to call time out just prior to the under-eight media time out, at which point Indiana had more errors (eight) than field goals (seven).
Mathias was a central part of IU’s game plan, with IU leading its film study in the buildup to Tuesday’s game with clips of the Purdue junior guard.
It didn’t seem to help.
“As good as Swanigan is and the rest of them, Mathias is the key to their team,” Crean said. “We did a great job against him at our place and then today … he got hot and we lost him a couple times. I think that hurt us.”
Crean used another time out at the 5:24 mark after Purdue made its seventh consecutive field goal attempt and opened a 33-23 lead. The Boilers’ first-half lead grew to as many as 15 points late in the period. Meanwhile, the Hoosiers went into halftime trailing 40-32 without having shot a single free throw.
Just like last week at Iowa, where IU was also on the wrong end of a glaring free throw discrepancy, Crean declined to discuss the difference in free throws, which saw Purdue go 28-for-33 at the line and IU merely 13-for-17.
Newkirk, however, offered a blunt assessment.
“I thought we were getting fouled, but I guess they didn’t call it,” Newkirk said.
The Hoosiers hit three early 3-pointers to start the second half, including two by Blackmon that helped get Indiana within 45-41 three minutes into the period.
That was as close as IU would creep.
A sky hook from Priller, who replaced Davis after he fouled out midway through the second half, got IU within six with 10:09 to play.
Even as Priller gave IU some decent minutes in an emergency role, Purdue answered with a 12-5 spurt and essentially salted the game away when Bryant fouled out with 5:45 to play.
At that point, the Purdue celebration was a mere formality, and a tough season for Indiana, got a little tougher.
“Our guys are positive,” Newkirk said. “We’re gonna keep fighting, keep working.”