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Inches and Seconds

Purdue came literally as close as you can get to a Final Four without going.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-South Regional-Purdue vs Virginia Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

Basketball is in my blood. I am from Indiana, so of course it is. I have been watching games since I was younger than my almost 6-year-old son. I grew up on the high school game here in the state and in the heart of Keady vs. Knight. I have seen thousands of games over the years and the thrill of a close game down to the wire is unmatched. Before last night I was thinking about comparisons from the many, many seasons I have watched and the closest I came up with was that Purdue was 1997 Kokomo.

That year was my junior year in high school and the previous season was the better team. It had started 19-0, spent much of the season ranked No. 1 in the state, but was upset in the Sweet 16 by Ft. Wayne Dwenger. We graduated our two best players, another starter, and a ton of depth, but it was the 1997 team, not the 1996 team, that broke through and made the Final Four in Indianapolis with a great tournament run.

This and more crossed my mind yesterday during an extremely long day of travel. I woke up at 6:30am in Miami ready to come home from vacation. As luck would have it, we had booked our flights through Louisville and not Indianapolis because of prices and blackouts on a companion certificate we had. I boarded a plane and left Ft. Lauderdale at 9:47am and arrived back in Louisville around 1:20pm. When Purdue made the Sweet 16 I applied for a media credential knowing I could only use it for the Elite Eight game, but “just in case”. Since my wife and son didn’t have tickets I had just enough time to drive them back to Indianapolis and return to Louisville.

I walked into the arena about 90 minutes before tipoff and my fatigue was instantly lifted. There were already Purdue fans in the stands cheering even when the players straggled out for shoot around about an hour before tipoff. I am not kidding that the atmosphere grew into Mackey South by game time. Tony Bennett stated that it really was a road game for his team, and sitting right in front of hundreds of Purdue fans I can’t say I would not have turned around for a massive group hug had we won. Their energy lifted me through a fog of personal fatigue, so I know it boosted Purdue.

As for that win… we’re still waiting. It was a game of seconds and inches. Given that Virginia has its own litany of heartbreak in March this felt like game 7 of the 2016 World Series between the Cubs and Indians. Both teams respected each other. Both teams had decades of pain and suffering. Only one would end it, and you could feel as Virginia cut Purdue’s 10-point lead to one by halftime that the ending was going to be particularly painful for the loser.

And what a game it was. Carsen Edwards was better than Texas Carsen and even got more support. No one else from Purdue was in double figures last night, but there were little contributions everywhere. Eric Hunter Jr. hit an early three and finished with 5 points when he was scoreless at Texas. Trevion Williams got a pair of baskets. Nojel Eastern had some clutch putbacks. Aaron Wheeler hit a three and came close to another.

But it goes back to inches and seconds:

· The ball was on Wheeler’s fingertips just barely when he had a first half three wiped away due to a shot clock violation. The Hunter three a minute later kind of made up for it because any threes from him are like found money, but still, it was three points off the board by a split second.

· Trailing 53-48 Purdue actually got a rebound. There was no call as Carsen was thrown into the table courtside right in front of me, but he got up, got the ball, and hit a stepback long 2. It was inconclusive on the replay I saw if he got his right foot behind the line, but it was less than an inch from being a three and getting one more point.

· There was also a play in the first half (I apologize for not knowing the time) where a rebound was coming right to Carsen, but he slipped. It led to a Virginia offensive rebound and basket. There was also another turnover where he had a rebound but ran into an off-balance Grady, turning it over.

· With 14:23 left in regulation and Purdue trailing 43-36 Wheeler drove the lane and went for what would have been a monstrous dunk. He just missed the dunk, but was fouled. He missed the first free throw, but hit the second. If he slams the dunk home and even misses the free throw it is still another point.

· Virginia had countless offensive rebounds that were the result of inches. They had 17 offensive rebounds and it was a team effort, but Jack Salt had five of the 17. He tipped out numerous boards away from Purdue players.

· And, of course, the final play of regulation.

That last play was heartbreaking in every way. In a span of five seconds every Purdue fan went from “Holy shit, we’re going to the Final Four!” to “What the hell just happened?” It all happened right in front of me and I still don’t know how they pulled it off. If Ty Jerome hits the free throw Purdue is actually better off, as Purdue has to inbound and likely gets fouled with 4-4.5 seconds left. Assuming we hit a free throw or two, Virginia has to bring the ball up against a set defense. Instead, it was a wild scramble play.

Mamadi Diakite was blocked out well by Grady Eifert, but the carom went over Grady and Diakite did what Virginia players did all night in tapping the ball out because he couldn’t secure it. He tapped it too hard, however, and it went past everyone on the floor. At this point, I thought the game was over. I thought the ball was either going to go out of bounds at the other end of the floor, taking precious seconds off the clock, or that Virginia would recover and have to take a desperation 50 footer as time expired. If it goes out of bounds it is Purdue ball under the opposite basket with a 2 point lead and maybe a second and a half left. My horror of not getting the board went to sheer ecstasy in a split second because I thought for sure it would end right there.

Virginia did have a timeout, but Kihei Clark outhustled Nojel to the loose ball and gathered it with 3.8 seconds left going the wrong direction. I was surprised Virginia didn’t use its timeout, but again, he is going the wrong way and the clock is running. No way they get off a good shot, right? He turned and with 2 seconds he fired a cross-court pass to Diakite. On the replay it looks like Carsen may have had a chance at tipping it if he jumps, but the angle could also be wrong. It was a rifle of a pass and Diakite makes an incredible play to catch, turn, and throw up a perfect floater between 1.1 and 0.3 seconds. He is in the air and pogo-sticks to get it off just barely in time over Matt Haarms.

Now I know some have Zapruder-filmed the final sequence and determined the clock started roughly 0.6 seconds after the ball was initially tipped, and the shot leaves Diakite’s hand with 0.3 left. It is merely the reaction of the scorekeeper (a neutral on the sideline staffed by Louisville) and not a terrible error. It happens all the time. There is no way anyone can react immediately when it is touched, so there was always going to be a delay. It just went against Purdue, that’s all.

And it was an amazing play. Run that sequence a hundred times and Virginia ties it what, three times? Four? This was even after Purdue had done the right thing and fouled with a three point lead. Yes, if Ryan Cline hits his second free throw it is moot, but still, Purdue did pretty much everything right. It fouled up three with 5 seconds left. Eifert boxed out. It forced Virginia to get the ball going away from the basket. Even Haarms is there to make Diakite’s floater tougher by making him shoot over a 7’3” guy with his arms extended. He is a split second late on his jump and if he leaps just a little bit sooner he probably even blocks it. It was a scramble play no one can script or prepare for, and maybe the only thing I would do differently is have Williams in to rebound instead of Eifert. Even then, Eifert had just secured a massive offensive rebound seconds earlier at the other end, so I am fine with him being in.

Once again, inches and seconds. Even after all that, Purdue had a chance. Carsen drove and scored with 43 seconds left in overtime to give Purdue a one-point lead. We needed a stop, but De'Andre Hunter scored (way too easily), and we knew Carsen would get the ball. I credit Virginia’s defense because he was looking to drive in the closing seconds and could get no space. They forced him into another long three, but given what he had been hitting all night I was fine with it. He missed and it was over.

Seconds and inches.

How does Purdue recover from this? These were just parts of the game that happen in the flow of any game that were magnified tenfold by the moment. I didn’t even mention Bo “Burn in Hell” Boroski (his new full name) and his questionable calls against us (including a clear block out of bounds by Virginia given to… Virginia). There was also the play where Jerome tripped over his own feet and stumbled into Hunter, only to be bailed out with a foul on Hunter and two free throws. This is literally as close as you can come to a Final Four without making it because at the moment the clock expired Purdue was leading, but the final shot was unfortunately in the air. Purdue took a great team right to the brink and definitely deserved to win. It was even in front of a hugely partisan crowd. We’re never going to get that good of a shot against a 1 seed again short of playing them in Indy in a regional final.

And I give a world of credit to Virginia. They played great. Kyle Guy had a bad first half and even left briefly with an injury, but returned to dominate. Hunter did nothing in regulation but made two huge plays in overtime. Jerome was great at running point and hitting key shots. They are an excellent team I have wanted to play for a while because I feel like we’re similar programs. They now have their breakthrough and we’re still waiting.

I admit that the “woe is us” Purdue fan came out when Diakite tied it, but I was strangely confident on the long drive home. I pulled into my garage at 1:30am, but I wrote up the game wrap sitting courtside last night as Virginia was getting its regional trophy and cutting the nets down. Maybe it was osmosis. Maybe it was blind optimism. Maybe I am just crazy. Something soaked in during those moments as Virginia fans cheered every player climbing the ladder and cutting the nets down, culminating in Tony Bennett going up to massive cheers in a mostly empty arena.

Virginia recovered from the most humiliating defeat in NCAA Tournament history. Not only did they become the first 1 seed to lose to a 16 seed, they got their asses kicked in doing so. This year they trailed another 16 seed by 6 at halftime and their fans had to be having their own “oh no, not again” moment. They had the same when that ball was tipped out past half court by Diakite. While Purdue fans went from ecstasy to horror, Virginia went the opposite. We went flying past them like a pair of trains in a tunnel.

The point is that they recovered, and as I was driving home I was strangely encouraged. I was speaking with my wife on the phone and I told her that the loss was as painful as the final one of my high school career. In the 1998 regional my beloved Kokomo Wildkats led Marion by 2 in regulation with seconds to play on our home floor. Our best player, future Indiana linebacker Herman Fowler, missed a free throw. Zach Randolph, then just a sophomore in high school, went down and drew a foul with 12 seconds left. He hit the first free throw, but missed the second. During the rebound our one post player that could match up with him fouled out. Marion hit one of two to tie, and we eventually lost by 4 in overtime. It was a bitter defeat that still stings 21 years later, so bitter that I honestly do not remember how I got home from the gym that night, as I was there hours later.

This loss was like that, but for some reason I am uplifted. I think it is because the season as a whole came out of nowhere. After a 6-5 start Purdue finished 26-10, won the Big Ten, and went to the Elite Eight for the first time in 19 years. It exceeded every expectation even if this loss will go down as one of the most painful in our NCAA history up there with 1988, 1994, 2000, 2015, and 2016. We were right there, inches and seconds away. We were good enough to go to the Final Four and less than a second away. Again, play that final sequence with that exact tip out again 100 times and how many times does Purdue come out on top right after Diakite tips it back? Would you take Purdue’s chances again if you could rewind to the exact moment he tipped it back? I would.

Maybe soaking in Virginia’s celebration gave me hope because if they can recover after last year, Purdue can recover from this. This was supposed to be a rebuilding year and we exceeded every expectation. Coach Painter continues to grow as a coach and made pretty much every right move last night, even adjusting to Williams and Haarms together later. You get the feeling Purdue will be in a regional final again soon.

Here is hoping the next time the inches and seconds go our way.