WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Illinois came to Mackey Arena hungry for an NCAA Tournament résumé boost and with a week to prepare for No. 4 Purdue.
The Illini also devised a defensive plan that shut down one of the Boilermakers' Big Three and its only real inside presence, center JaJuan Johnson. They sagged defenders down from non-perimeter threats Chris Kramer, Kelsey Barlow and Lewis Jackson to clog the lane and keep the 6-foot-10 Johnson from going off like he had during Purdue's eight-game winning streak.
But this is how tough the Boilermakers are right now. Even with most of the elements in place for an upset, they fended off the Illinois challenge for a 75-65 victory, staying in the driver's seat for the Big Ten regular-season championship after a 2-3 start in league play.
"To be 2-3 in the league and now to win nine straight is a huge compliment to our guys," Purdue coach Matt Painter said. "We had take a step back and realize that if we don't rebound the ball and do some of these things that are constants, we're not going to have a chance to get in this race. Now, we've put ourselves in the mix."
The streak has included victories at Michigan State and Ohio State this month, and Johnson played a vital role by averaging 19.6 points during those eight wins. On Saturday, he was double-teamed every time he touched the ball in the paint and had to settle for long jumpers. He finished just 1-for-10 from the field.
That normally spells doom for the Boilermakers, who rely so heavily on their star junior trio. Johnson never broke double digits during a three-game losing skid last month and there were no other answers. But this time, a senior saved the day off the bench.
Guard Keaton Grant scored a season-high 15 points, 10 of them in the final 6:06. His three-pointer broke a 56-all tie for good, and he drilled another three to make it 68-60 with 1:30 left. Grant also had 13 points in Wednesday's win at Ohio State after not scoring in double figures in his previous 13 outings.
"You can cheat on some of their guys," Illinois coach Bruce Weber said. "But when he comes in and makes some shots it really makes it tough to guard them because they have so many weapons. Maybe he's figured it out as a senior."
If the Boilermakers (23-3, 11-3 Big Ten) are to make a long run in the NCAA Tournament, they'll likely need a fourth scoring option beyond Johnson, E'Twaun Moore and Robbie Hummel. Perhaps Grant could be that guy.
"We've got something special going right now and we want to keep it going," he said. "To be a senior and contribute to this team is a great feeling."
Illinois shot 49 percent for the game as point guard Demetri McCamey's 3-D -- drive, draw and dish -- looked better than "Avatar." Perfectly utilizing ball screens to set up teammates for wide open looks on the wing, McCamey tied his career high for assists with 11 in the first half alone. He ended with 16 dimes, tying the school record and equaling the most by a Division I player this year. Purdue, on the other hand, hit just 27.3 percent in the first half and needed a second-half flurry of three-pointers to finally take over.
But some of Painter's "constants" -- rebounding and securing the ball -- kept the home team in position to win. The Boilermakers got 17 extra possessions against the Illini through offensive rebounding (15 to 8) and turnovers (5 versus 15).
Of course, a favorable home whistle might have helped, as Purdue shot 28 free throws to just five for Illinois and received the benefit of a couple of close block/charge calls. Weber was so upset that he drew a late technical foul for yelling at official Curtis Shaw. Still, even Weber had to admit that Purdue earned at least some of those calls.
"They wear you down and they get physical, and they do it without fouling," he said.
They also have players who can take over during important stretches. Hummel (22 points, 12 rebounds) did that in the first half while his teammates struggled to figure out the Illini defense. Moore drilled two huge shots off ball screens in the final five minutes, his passes set up both of Grant's three-point daggers.
Those are reasons why the Boilermakers sit in great shape to win the Big Ten and perhaps sew up a No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed. They have one semi-challenging road game left -- Wednesday at Minnesota -- before a rematch with Michigan State at next Sunday. They finish up with Big Ten bottom feeders Indiana and Penn State.
"Our goal from the beginning of the year was to win the Big Ten, and it kind of slipped away from us at the beginning," Moore said. "Now we're in good position, and our destiny is in our hands."