After a historically terrible opening half, Michigan State began to look like its No. 6-ranked self in the second half of its game against Purdue on Saturday. The Spartans were down 55-32 with just over 13 minutes in regulation, but went on a 24-5 run to cut the Boilermakers’ lead down to four, 60-56. Despite Purdue keeping its lead down the stretch, Michigan State was able to counter every blow it took with a big shot of its own. Eventually, the score was 65-60 and the Spartans needed a stop. But having played their third game in six days, and fourth road game in five days, the team was simply too tired to use conventional defense, and settled on fouling Purdue’s worst free throw shooter on the floor: sophomore Nojel Eastern.
The numbers favored Michigan State greatly. Prior to this game, Eastern shot 50 percent from the charity stripe this season—43 percent for his career--and had already missed the only two free throws he had taken in the game so far. What resulted from this strategy was a statistical anomaly that could not have come at a worse time for the Spartans. In less than a minute of game time, Eastern was fouled three times and made all six of his free throw attempts. Here’s what that looked like on play-by-play.
This was a massive improvement of his last free throw performance against Michigan State where he shot 1-for-6.
Purdue’s win wasn’t all about those late clutch free throws. It helped that the Boilermakers out-rebounded their opponents and took advantage of an early shooting slump from the Spartans to take a 37-19 lead into the half. But even coach Matt Painter felt that Eastern’s performance at the line was the difference-maker in the game.
“They kind of get down six or 20 [on the road] and they have you right where they want you,” coach Matt Painter said, referring to the Spartans’ proclivity to come back. “You’re nervous the whole damn time. I was nervous till 30 seconds [remained].”
“You know if [Eastern] misses a couple front ends there, you’re in a different position and you have a different feeling,” Painter said.
In addition to that winning feeling that can only come when you upset a top-10 opponent in your home gym, Painter and the Boilermakers also probably feel that the Big 10 is a lot more wide open than it was before. Purdue was written off after starting the season 6-5, but now they’ve shown they can dominate Michigan State, a team that looked like the best in the country just days ago. The rest of the season just got a hell of a lot more exciting, all because one Purdue player managed to hit more free throws than expected.