Purdue finds a cure for its Sweet 16 curse

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Down the stretch of regulation on Thursday, it looked like Matt Painter's Sweet 16 curse was set to continue.

Four tries, four losses. Untimely injuries, bad matchups and consistently having to face top seeds -- Painter hadn't had the best of luck in regional semifinals.

And after Purdue blew an 18-point, second-half lead to Tennessee and Grant Williams finished a putback with eight seconds left, defeat seemed likely. But Carsen Edwards got fouled shooting a corner 3 with 1.7 seconds left and made two of three to send the game to overtime, where Purdue pulled away to win 99-94.

If there was ever a game for Painter to get perhaps the biggest win of his career, it was Thursday's Sweet 16 matchup -- arguably the best game of this year's NCAA tournament. Purdue put on a clinic in the first half, shooting 55.2 percent from the field and making seven 3-pointers. After Painter spoke on Wednesday about needing to prevent 22-4-type runs by Tennessee, the Volunteers turned things around in the second half. They went on a 14-0 run midway through the period to tie the game -- and the two teams essentially exchanged haymakers down the stretch to force overtime.

"Man, that was obviously a great game," Painter said afterward.

"We were just able to battle it out, have guys that battle it out," Edwards added. "Ryan [Cline] made huge shots for us. We were just able to pull it out."

Edwards and Cline were essentially Purdue's entire offense for long stretches, Edwards finishing with 29 points and Cline finishing with 27 points and seven 3-pointers before fouling out. Edwards became the first player since Steph Curry to score 25 points in four straight NCAA tournament games. Cline was unconscious from 3-point range.

Although Edwards finished with more points, Cline's 3-point shooting kept Purdue in the game late. He buried four 3-pointers in the final five minutes and scored nine straight Purdue points after Tennessee took a late lead.

"I give the credit to all my teammates," Cline said. "They were getting me open and I was making the right shots at the right time. ... I wouldn't say different rhythm. I feel like I always have that confidence, and it was kinda feeding to the entire team, and like I said, it came at a great time."

Painter's personal Sweet 16 exit streak is over, and so is Purdue's program drought. The Boilermakers hadn't been to the Elite Eight since 2000.

Here's the thing, though: This wasn't supposed to be the Purdue team to get Painter over the Sweet 16 hump.

Last year's team had four seniors and one of the best scorers in the country in Edwards, but it fell to Texas Tech in the regional semifinals. Two years ago, Purdue had All-American Caleb Swanigan, three juniors and Edwards -- but the Boilermakers were blown out in the Sweet 16 by Kansas.

This season's team was a borderline top-25 team in the preseason, certainly not expected to win a share of the Big Ten regular-season title and sit one game from the Final Four. Four starters were gone from last season, with Edwards the lone one back. And for the first six weeks of the season, Purdue matched the expectations -- starting 6-5 after a neutral-court loss to what would end up being a thoroughly mediocre Notre Dame team.

But this version of the Boilermakers has shooters, toughness and plays with swagger. It's not a surprise Villanova coach Jay Wright said after last week's blowout loss to Purdue that he saw a lot of similarities between his opponent and his own title-winning group last season.

"It reminds of our team last year," Wright said. "Just great perimeter skill, but still have a drive game and a good post-up game. Really unselfish. And you could see they had a confidence shooting the ball, no fear of failure, very impressive."

Of course, Villanova won the title last season and Purdue is still three wins away from following in the Wildcats' footsteps. But it's hard to totally write off the Boilermakers' chances after all they've done already this season.

When Edwards has his shot falling and Cline plays like he did on Thursday, it's difficult to handle Purdue. And right now, Edwards has his shot falling. After shooting 27.0 percent from the field and 24.4 percent from 3-point range in his previous four games heading into last weekend, he has now totaled 71 points in the past two games, hitting 14 3-pointers.

"He's very confident," Painter said of Edwards. "He's got a short memory. I think that really helps him in situations like this, where he can miss three, four, five, six shots in a row and he's going to keep coming back at you and keep getting there."

Both Edwards and Cline love to run off a number of screens, wearing down defenses. And then when defenses overcommit to stop the perimeter shots, 7-foot-3 Matt Haarms rolls to the rim for open finishes. It's going to be a tough offense to stop -- especially on a short turnaround.

"We go back to the hotel, we enjoy it with our family and friends now, and then tonight we figure out who we are playing," Cline said. "And tomorrow we get back after it."

By the way, Purdue's Final Four drought extends back to 1980.

Will another streak end on Saturday?