Once again, I'm really at a loss for words about what I just witnessed, but I'll try and throw a few together for the benefit of those of you who weren't lucky/cursed enough to see this game live from press row.
The first thing that struck me once I reached my seat was the obvious size advantage Purdue had over Little Rock. It's one thing to see numbers on paper, or even see players match up on television, but in person, it was almost jarring. A.J. and Biggie both dwarfed their match ups, and Haas brought it to an entirely different level when he stepped onto the court. It wasn't just that Purdue was taller; Purdue was also thicker and stronger at almost every position. However, while I was admiring the Boiler Sky-Line, I also noticed Little Rock's guards. They looked leaner, quicker, and more athletic than P.J. and Ray. Essentially, Purdue was in a stylistic battle. It was Purdue's size vs Little Rock's athleticism, and for the large majority of the game, Purdue size looked to carry the day. In person, the first half looked like Purdue dominating and Little Rock hanging on. Purdue couldn't knock them out (going 2-12 from 3 will do that for you) but I just got the feeling that Little Rock was throwing everything they had at the Boilermakers just to survive, while Purdue was still in 3rd gear. After Vince Edwards hit a crucial 3 at the end of half, carrying the momentum into the locker room, I was silently smug. I knew Purdue had this one in the bag.
The second half seemed to confirm my feelings. Purdue came out and started punishing Little Rock. You could see Purdue's defense begin to squeeze the life out of the Trojans, but right when Purdue looked to be setting up for the knockout punch, Little Rock (or the officials) would make a play to keep them off the mat. However, a strange thing happened about midway through the second half; Purdue stopped playing the bully ball we are accustomed to seeing, making Little Rock match up with our behemoths on the inside, and started matching up with Little Rock. Little Rock's coach Chris Beard, talked about this in the post-game press conference.
"We never in our wildest dreams imagined they would match up with us. Late in the game when they did that, it brought us confidence. Looking around the huddle, looking around the huddle I said, "this is real, this is our moment. They just matched up with us. Let's go play Little Rock basketball." It was a defining moment in our game with our guys from a confidence standpoint. We were getting tired doubling those big guys. We have guys in our locker room that are bruised, cut, and sore. It was a lot of work today to keep those three big guys contained."
Essentially, Little Rock's press scared Purdue into going small, and changed the game from a battle of size and strength to a battle of quickness and athleticism, and that's just not a game Purdue is going to win. Granted, it took Josh Hagins turning into Allen Iverson to facilitate the Little Rock comeback, but Purdue played right into the Trojan's hands. Purdue had a 13 point lead with 3 minutes remaining, but the Boilermakers looked like they were out of ideas and out of gas, while Little Rock, and Hagins especially, looked like they were ready to take the game by the throat. It was surreal to watch live, because I honestly didn't think Little Rock was that close until I looked up and saw the scoreboard. I honestly didn't realize how close the score was until I looked up at the scoreboard. It still felt like Purdue was comfortably in control, but the scoreboard indicated otherwise. My smug smile was replaced by a nervous grimace as Little Rock started bombing away from 3 and Purdue started choking. When Little Rock had the ball down by 3 it was obvious to every Purdue fan what was about to happen...and then, it happened. Hagins held the ball, and then calmly fired a dagger into Boilermaker hearts with a shot, that by all rights, was a bad shot. Coach Painter talked about the last possession of overtime in the post-game press conference.
"... with 17 seconds in the one situation, we're up three, I don't foul there. I thought it was too much time. I thought they would look to attack. Most people don't wait till the end to shoot a shot with 17 seconds. They look to attack. If they can get a quick three, great, if not, they can get a quick two, and they foul. They kept dribbling, dribbling, dribbling. In hindsight, I should have got a foul there at the very end. It's hard as you get out of the huddle and talk about those different things."
Purdue had around 6 seconds and 2 timeouts to get a shot, but while Little Rock thrived on pressure, Purdue folded, and Vince Edwards inexplicably held onto the ball for 3 seconds, before realizing Purdue needed to push the ball. Instead of a decent shot, Purdue ended up with a half court heave from Dakota Mathias. Vince and Coach Painter talked about that play in the press conference.
Vince: "I wasn't aware. That's a mistake on my part mentally. Just not knowing time, knowing score."
Coach Painter: "Today, when you said that about Vince Edwards getting the basketball, not knowing the time, I should have got a timeout right there. I started to get it, I saw Little Rock was really not getting back. So I thought with five seconds, we got that quick outlet; we would be able to attack. Our guys didn't recognize that the score was tied. That's my fault."
Purdue came out in the first overtime, and once again looked like they were in control of the game, and Little Rock was hanging on, but once again, Purdue couldn't knock out Little Rock. A crucial missed free throw by Ryan Cline, followed by a complete defense melt down, where Purdue failed to stop the ball after the defensive rebound and allowed Haggins to get to the rim and score over Ray Davis at the rim once again tied the game. Purdue had the ball with the last possession, but Vince Edwards failed to convert a 5 footer through contact, sending the game into a second overtime. Matt Painter spoke about that possession in his press conference.
"We were looking for the dribble handoff to Vince. We told him he had to take it strong and drive it to get that guy in so you could get that pitch back. But we said, if you can get an alley and get to the rim, we wanted you to be able to do that. He definitely was able to get there, and then obviously it didn't work out."
In the second overtime, Purdue looked gassed, and for the first time in the game, was the team fighting to hold on against the reinvigorated Trogans. Little Rock scored the first 5 points, and Purdue was never able to close the gap. After taking quick two's and fouling, Purdue was giving a chance to save themselves after Little Rock miss two free throws with 10 seconds remaining, leaving the Boilermakers only down 2. Johnny Hill took the ball and attacked down the right side of the court, attempted to drive the ball to the basket, tripped (or was tripped) and was only able to offer up a falling down flip that caught the bottom of the basket, preventing Purdue from having a chance for an offensive rebound, essentially ending the game. Matt Painter talked about the final play.
"I thought there was definitely contact. I couldn't tell because he kind of long-stepped through the contact. I thought he got hit, but I haven't watched it yet, you know, to confirm that. Anytime you put yourself in those positions, it can work for you, and sometimes it doesn't work for you."
And that, as they say, is that. If you have to boil the game down to its essence, Purdue flinched, matched up with Little Rock, and failed to convert down the stretch, often in spectacular fashion. That's all I've got from here in Denver. I'm heading out in the snow to catch the train back to where I'm staying. I think it's probably a fitting end to the season for me.