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Sasha Stefanovic wasn’t even going to shoot the ball.
Mired in his extended post-COVID slump, Stefanovic had just missed a three-pointer, and when this time Zach Edey kicked the ball back out out of Nebraska’s post double-team, Stefanovic shot-faked, but was intent to move the ball.
Then, Kobe Webster fell down and the red D parted, and Stefanovic changed his mind.
He made that three, then another, and another, another, and led the Boilermakers to a resounding 75-58 win at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
It was part clutch, part catharsis for the Boilermaker veteran, who missed three games after contracting the virus, and had yet to make a field goal in the three full games following his return.
One of Purdue’s most competitive and demanding-of-himself people, Stefanovic was frustrated.
“I felt like I wasn’t getting a lot of opportunities like I was before,” Stefanovic said. “Like Coach Painter says, it’s tough to come in off the bench and shoot a three cold and get yourself in a rhythm.”
In Lincoln, that rhythm came from that shot — with 8:01 left to play — that Stefanovic wasn’t even planning on taking.
“I haven’t made a shot in a month,” said Stefanovic, who finished with 14 points. “So to see a shot go in after that long a while kind of felt good.”
These were significant shots, too.
Purdue trailed this game early in the second half after Nebraska closed the first half on a 10-2 run to erase most of the visitors’ 11-point first-half lead. The Boilermakers had to fight to shake off the Cornhuskers, and once they regained control, it was Stefanovic who ended the fight.
The Boilermakers outscored Nebraska 29-9 in the final 13 minutes.
“When you have a run, you have to be good on both ends,” Coach Matt Painter said. “You have to stack together stops on top of making good decisions on the offensive end.”
And shots, the part of it Stefanovic took care of on a bit of an atypical night for Purdue.
This wasn’t what it’s used to, getting only nine points on eight shots in only 21 minutes from stalwart big man Trevion Williams.
Williams has been the Boilermakers’ star this season, but another might be emerging …
It was another star-turn sort of performance for freshman Jaden Ivey, who was again both productive and complete in his play, and occasionally spectacular.
The emergent rookie totaled a game-high 15 points on 6-of-12 shooting, with seven rebounds, three assists, three steals, two blocks and a distinct tone set on defense early on. All three of his steals came in the first few minutes of the game, laying the groundwork for a defensive performance that held Nebraska to 35-percent shooting and limited leading scorer Teddy Allen to just six points, 11 below his average.
“Those were big for me in terms of getting confidence offensively,” Ivey said of his steals. “… It lifted me up on the offensive end.”
Ivey made a pair of threes, threw down a baseline dunk as part of Purdue’s game-deciding run, stuffed an offensive rebound in the final seconds of the first half and set up both a dunk for Edey and a three for Stefanovic off the dribble, giving the Boilermakers distinct energy on offense, stemming — he says — from his defense.
“The more times he can get out into space or get out in transition and get a head of steam, it’s a positive thing for us when he’s attacking the basket,” Painter said.
Before Stefanovic knocked Nebraska out, Aaron Wheeler loomed large in putting the Cornhuskers on the ropes.
The veteran forward delivered seven points, all in the second half, scoring on a putback and off a baseline out-of-bounds set at the rim before nailing a three from the corner with nine-and-a-half minutes left, a really significant shot at the time and one that seems in hindsight to have opened the floodgates for Purdue. Half of the Boilermakers’ 10 threes — on 32 attempts — came in that final 10 minutes.
“I was just trying to keep doing the right things, being in the right spot at the right time,” Wheeler said. “The ball kind of fell my way.”
That three was part of Purdue’s second-half deluge, pouring it on a Nebraska facing unprecedented difficulty this season.
“We’re starting to learn,” Wheeler said. “We’ve had a few close games this year we weren’t able to close out. We just tried to echo the message to not let It get close, to not give them a chance. That was a big part (of the win).”