My Two Cents: Purdue's Stefanovic Puts His Foot Down in 1st Start

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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — After last spring's heartbreaking overtime loss to Virginia that cost Purdue a trip to the Final Four, Matt Painter didn't bother to watch the tape of the game.

What was the point, really? There was no need to relive that agony.

But with the rematch scheduled Wednesday night as part of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, Painter "had to do my job,'' and, at long last, he broke down the film from that 80-75 overtime loss a mere nine months later. That tape, combined with how his team had been playing in the last week or two, led him to one conclusion prior to Wednesday's tipoff.

They needed more offense — especially against the the No. 1-ranked defense in the country.

Painter decided to give Sasha Stefanovich his first start of the year, and the 6-foot-4 sophomore guard from Crown Point, Ind., didn't disappoint. All he did was hit three straight 3-pointers on Purdue's first four possessions to help the Boilermakers jump out to an early lead. He hit three more in the second half, scoring a career-high 20 points in Purdue's shocking 69-40 rout of the unbeaten and No. 5-ranked Cavaliers. 

"It helped getting guys who can shoot the ball to get into a rhythm right away,'' Purdue coach Matt Painter said. "We took advantage of taking those open (shots) early, and everything looks better when shots are going in.''

Stefanovic's hot start was critical because the best way to beat Virginia is to make them play catch-up. They aren't built for it, and haven't been for years. They play great defense, but they also love to use most of every 30 seconds on the shot clock. They like to slug it out, so they aren't going to play faster to rally. Two years ago, they fell behind UMBC in the first round of the NCAA Tournament and couldn't recover, becoming the first No. 1 seed to ever lose to a No. 16 seed. They aren't, quickly simply, a comeback team.

So, yes, a good start made a massive difference. Purdue got a big lead early and never looked back.

"Any time you have the fifth-ranked team on your court, you need to bring the energy,'' Stefanovic said. "It was a great night. I'm glad we got it done.''

Having their way with defending champions 

Purdue has been very good lately under Painter, but Wednesday was still a night of firsts.

  •  It was the first time in the 52-year history of Mackey Arena that the Boilermakers had beaten a nonconference team ranked in the top five. They had been 0-6 previously.
  • The 29-point win was Purdue’s largest ever against a nationally-ranked team. The previous record was 27 points against No. 2-ranked North Carolina on March 20, 1969 (92-65).
  • Purdue has beaten the defending national champions in back-to-back seasons, both by at least 25 points. (They beat Villanova 87-61 last year). That's never been done before, either. 
  • Purdue, in fact, is 11-4 against defending national champions in its last 15 such games.
  • Purdue is now 14-3 at home against nationally-ranked teams since the start of the 2015-16 season.

Revenge wasn't really an issue, Painter said, because the cast of characters on both teams are so different. 

Still, it was nice to get such a huge win on a big stage.

"If we had the same team, that might have been an issue. We don't have the same snipers, and they don't either,'' Painter said. "Last year, the shotmakers they had, it was unbelievable. So it's a different game. We were just trying to get a win after a couple of losses.

"I think tonight was great. We have a great environment here, but we have to play well for that to happen. We gave them something to cheer about tonight.'' 

Stefanovic gets his moment to shine

This is been a difficult start to the season for Stefanovic, who had high expectations coming into the year with sharpshooters Carsen Edwards and Ryan Cline gone. He knew he had to fill that role, but a foot injury on the eve of the season opener has slowed him down. 

He missed the first game against Green Bay because of the injury, and he was limited in practice for another two to three weeks while it healed. It wasn't until last week that he was really full-go every day.

"I got my foot pinned under a teammate and chipped a little bone in my foot,'' Stefanovic said. "I had a lot of bone bruising and strained ligaments, but I had a lot of good rehab and got back out there quicker. I missed some practices, and had to miss the second half of the Chicago State game because it wasn't feeling good, but it got better every day.''

The hardest part was missing practice time and getting into a routine. He's had brief moments — he hit four 3-pointers in the Texas loss — but he also struggled against bad matchups, most notably against pressing teams like VCU and Florida State last weekend.

In the two games in Florida, he played only 12 minutes in each game and scored only eight total points. And he was his own harshest critic.

 "Last week in the tournament in Florida, I thought I played pretty poorly. I wasn't really aggressive, wasn't really ready,'' Stefanovic said.  "Tonight I wanted to come out and be aggressive and do anything that I could to help us win, whether that was shooting or getting steals, I wanted to bring a lot of energy and get us going.''

Painter knew that the best way to beat Virginia was to get good shots early in the possession — and then knock them down. He thought he'd get that from Stefanovic, and he did.

Painter admitted that playing two points guards made more sense in Florida, and that limited Stefanovic's chances. But he also knew he'd be a perfect elixir in beating Virginia's defense, because he isn't shy about shooting when he has a good look. He never hesitated on his shots, and knocking down 6 of 10 3-pointers will always lead to a good night.

"Things went our way tonight.'' Painter said.

Did they ever. Stefanovic's fast start lifted everyone up. 

"It was a confidence boost, not just for Sasha, but for our whole team,'' Purdue guard Jahaad Proctor said. "We've been struggling to shoot the ball lately, and when Sasha gets it going, and other people get going, it makes it all a lot easier.

"I want to thank Sasha for that one.''

Everyone does. That 20-point night, his first, just might be the start of things to come. He's got his foot on the pedal now, and he's ready to go.

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