MILWAUKEE, Wis. -- The demons were there. Heck yes, they were. How could they not be?
Blown leads past to haunt those who couldn’t let them go.
But you know what?
These Boilers let them go.
With Iowa State surging Saturday night, with a 19-point lead gone and the Bradley Center crowd morphed into a Cyclone home arena, the Boilers (27-7) reached deep down, focusing on effort, awareness, confidence and refuse-to-lose resolve.
The result -- an 80-76 victory that sent them to Kansas City and next week’s Sweet 16.
“I’m feeling pretty good right now,” guard P.J. Thompson said. “I thought we were special. We were clutch when we needed to be. A lot of guys made a lot of great plays.”
Or, as center Isaac Haas put it, “It’s an unbelievable feeling. We come into this, and we can’t get past the first round. Now we’re going to the Sweet 16.”
Let’s start with Thompson and his demons. He’d missed the front end of a bonus that likely cost Purdue a Big Ten tourney victory over Michigan a couple of weeks ago.
What did he do?
He blamed himself, apologized to his team, then spent a ton of time working on free throws, and his three-point shooting.
Boy, did it pay off.
Thompson clinched Saturday night’s win with a pair of free throws in the final seven seconds. That followed hitting a crucial three-pointer with 2:59 left after Iowa State had just taken its first -- and only -- lead of the game, at 73-71.
“He had the five biggest points of the game,” said forward Caleb Swanigan, who had the biggest rebound after grabbing a Dakota Mathias missed free throw and intentionally getting the ball to Thompson to set up those redemptive, decisive free throws.
“We hung in there,” coach Matt Painter said. “To withstand things after they take the lead … that’s hard to recover. Our guys kept their poise.”
Iowa State (24-11) left Purdue with no choice after it unleashed the Big 12’s best offense in the final 14 minutes.
“As a coach you feel helpless because their shooters are so good they’re going to expose you,” Painter said. “They hit some tough shots so you don’t know what to say to your guys in the huddle.
“We had to make offensive plays. We made just enough.”
Added Cyclone coach Steve Prohm: “The last six to seven weeks we were playing as well as anybody in the country. It’s disappointing when it ends.”
Boiler heroes were everywhere. Vincent Edwards had 21 points, 10 rebounds, four assists and no turnovers. Swanigan had 20 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists. Haas came off the bench for 14 points in 15 minutes.
“I’ve dreamed about this,” Swanigan said. “You want to win big games in big moments. We had a huge lead. To lose it and show that resiliency and pull it out is huge.”
Purdue was a first-half wonder -- 57 percent shooting, six three-pointers, 15 assists and just three turnovers. Haas was a beast inside as he wasn’t in the NCAA tourney opener against Vermont. He was the main reason why the Boilers had an 18-0 off-the-bench edge by halftime, and a 44-31 lead.
Wonder continued for the first six minutes of the second half. The lead swelled to 19.
And then ….
That familiar Boiler dread.
Purdue had become synonymous with blown leads the last couple of years. Painter had recruited to correct it by adding backcourt players Spike Albrecht and Carsen Edwards. More importantly, the veteran players matured.
Sometimes there’s nothing like failure to spark success.
So with Iowa State charging, the Boilers preached calm.
“We knew they would make a run,” Thompson said. “They’re a really good team and have a really good point guard.
“We made our run first. It was a matter of withstanding theirs. We did. We were poised when they came back.
“The older you get, the more relaxed and calm you get. We’ve been there before, in situations like you see in the NCAA Tournament. This was one of those instances. We did what we had to do to finish the game.”
Iowa State made it tough. Deonte Burton got hot (he finished with 25 points). Monte Morris showed why he might be the nation’s best point guard (18 points, nine assists). The pro-Cyclone crowd added to tension.
"It was crazy out there," Purdue guard Ryan Cline said.
At the start, the Cyclones pushed to break Purdue with tempo.
The Boilers pushed back harder with better tempo.
They hit four early three-pointers, two from Swanigan, to set a tone -- they not only could run with the guard-strong Cyclones, they could out-run them. Haas punished them inside. Boiler sharpshooters rocked them outside.
The only thing that kept the game from being over at halftime was Iowa State guard Matt Thomas, who was 5-for-6 from the field for 12 points. However, he disappeared once Mathias, a member of the Big Ten all-defensive team, began guarding him.
Mathias also added a couple of clutch three-pointers to close the half
Purdue pushed ahead by 19 before Iowa State caught fire. A 12-0 Cyclone run turned blowout into nail-biter.
“We kept telling each other, we’re going to be all right,” Edwards said. “For a group that had never been past the first round before, and to be mentally strong tough to get past that situation, that speaks a lot about this team.
“They’re a heck of a team. They were making tough shots. They did what they needed to do.
“We knew they were going to make a run. It’s March. I saw it coming. You don’t want it to happen, but you have to withstand it.”
Purdue did, and has the Sweet 16 opportunity to show for it.
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