It is hard to believe, but in 2009 Purdue had not been to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament in nine seasons. This was quite a drought after three straight visits to the second weekend in 1998, 1999, and 2000 (and let’s hope that history does not repeat itself and we’re waiting until 2028 for a return now). Purdue had not had a nine year Sweet 16 drought since the period form 1969 to 1980. The 2000-2009 drought felt worse though. Purdue only made the tournament three times in that span (2003, 2007, and 2008). The rest was a very dark period including a 16-40 record during the 2005 and 2006 seasons.
There was a lot of hope in 2009 though. The Baby Boilers, after some early struggles, recovered to win the Big Ten Tournament. It set up a de facto road game in round two as the Boilers faced Washington in Portland just 140 miles from their campus, as opposed to the 2,223 miles that Portland was from West Lafayette.
#17 Purdue 76, #15 Washington 74 – March 21, 2009 – NCAA Tournament Second Round, Portland, Oregon
Even with the surprise departure of Scott Martin before the season the 2008-09 edition of Purdue basketball entered with sky high expectations. An extremely young team the year before came within a game of winning the Big Ten. An older and more experienced Xavier team knocked them out in round 2 of the NCAA Tournament, but with Robbie Hummel, E’Twaun Moore, and JaJuan Johnson all back along with Chris Kramer and Keaton Grant Purdue was still young, but had experience.
A challenging non-conference season led to frustration. Purdue started 5-0, but lost to eventual No. 1 overall pick Blake Griffin and No. 11 Oklahoma in Madison Square Garden in the preseason NIT title game 87-82 in overtime. This loss was mostly because Purdue was not allowed to be in the same physical proximity as any Oklahoma player and the Sooners shot 46 free throws to Purdue’s 5.
Next up was a highly anticipated ACC/Big Ten Challenge home game against Duke. Purdue usually gets a middle tier ACC team in these events, but this was DUKE. It was most highly anticipated non-conference home game in decades, maybe since UCLA opened Mackey Arena. That too ended in frustration as the Blue Devils easily handled Purdue 76-60. Purdue struggled somewhat during the Big Ten season, too. The Boilers were swept by Illinois, lost at Penn State and Ohio State in close games, and even lost at home to Northwestern. A 72-54 win over #6 Michigan State with Game Day in town was a big highlight, but Purdue finished a disappointing 11-7 before beating Penn State, Illinois, and Ohio State (teams it went 2-4 against in the regular season) to win its first Big Ten Tournament.
Washington came in as a solid #4 seed in the region. They had future NBA star Isaiah Thomas and a solid post player on Jon Brockman. Quincy Pondexter would later have an eight-year NBA career with four teams. They won the Pac-10 regular season title and were a definite threat to reach the Final Four. They had beaten Mississippi State 71-58 in round 1 and Purdue had beaten Northern Iowa 61-56.
As expected in these 4/5 games (and as we have seen many times over the years), this was a close one. Purdue’s defense was very strong early as the Boilers opened up a 17-6 lead by the 10-minute mark of the first half. Purdue would stay dominant offensively and a JJ dunk just before halftime gave the Boilers a comfortable 39-28 lead at the break.
Just 30 seconds into the second half Kramer would hit a rare three to push the lead to 14. With 14:18 left, however, the Huskies began to make a move behind Pondexter. He started pushing the offense and scored 7 points with an assist as Purdue’s lead went from 51-39 with just under 14 minutes left to 60-56 with 8:44 left.
Purdue managed to get to the under 8 media timeout up four, but its offense was ice cold. When Thomas cut the lead to 60-58 with 7:13 left Purdue had not hit a field goal in more than three minutes. Thankfully, JJ got loose for a dunk with 6:43 left, then after a pair of stops Kramer hit two free throws. Another basket by JJ with 5:49 left made it 66-58 and Purdue had some breathing room entering the stretch.
With 5:37 left Brockman would score, then Thomas would score with 4:56 left and add a free throw on the foul to make it 66-63. Lewis Jackson hit a free throw nine seconds later to get the lead back to four. Jackson would hit two more with 4:08 left and Purdue went into the final media timeout up 69-64, but with Brockman at the line. He made one of two, then after a defensive stop he got a second chance bucket left to make it 69-67 Purdue with 3:10 left.
On its next possession Purdue pushed the red button and went to Moore, who missed a layup, but got the rebound and was fouled. He hit both free throws with 2:47 left, but Brockman scored again with 2:31 left. On Purdue’s next possession Kramer had an answer with a basket to make it 73-69. Unfortunately, Brockman scored again after an offensive rebound with 1:39 left to cut the lead back to two.
Moore would miss a three with 1:24 left, giving Washington a chance to tie. That’s when the defense really kicked in. JJ blocked Thomas at the rim with 1:04 left, then blocked Pondexter four seconds later. Hummel corralled the second rebound and Purdue worked some clock up 73-71. Moore missed another shot with 27 seconds left, but Thomas missed for Washington with 21 seconds left and Kramer got the rebound. The Huskies fouled Moore with 13 seconds left and he would hit both free throws to make it 75-71.
Purdue sent Brockman to the line with 6 seconds left and he hit one of two. The Huskies fouled Moore on the inbounds and he hit one of two to make it 76-72. The Huskies would score on a tip-in by Pondexter at the buzzer, but it wasn’t enough. Purdue had survived 76-74 despite never trailing.
JJ would lead Purdue with 22 points and four huge blocked shots. Moore had 14 with six assists. Grant had 10 off the bench and a surprise 12 rebounds. LewJack had 11, Kramer had 9, and Hummel struggled with just 7 points, but added eight rebounds, three assists, and two steals. Washington was basically a three-man team with Thomas having 24, Brockman 20 (with 18 rebounds) and Pondexter 20.
The celebration was cathartic though. Purdue was back in the Sweet 16 for the first time in nine years. It drew No. 1 seed UConn in Phoenix, but fell 72-60 in a game where, once again, experience would prevail. It was considered another stepping stone year though. The 2007-08 season was the surprise breakthrough with the young freshmen. The 2008-09 season was them gaining experience, reaching the second weekend, and getting toughened up for what was to be the final breakthrough in 2009-10.
Of course, had That Night in The Barn never happened who knows how we would look at this game. It was a gritty tournament win over a conference champion and should have set the stage for a deeper run the next season. Purdue was a conference champion in its own right the next year and reached the Sweet 16, but the loss of Hummel was the difference between a 4 seed and a likely 1 seed. This was still a huge breakthrough win for the program, and it eventually led to five Sweet 16 appearances in 11 seasons through 2019.