INDIANAPOLIS — Matt Painter paced the Purdue sidelines, hands clasped behind his back like a professor, head slightly bowed, searching for answers that refused to come.
Until they did.
The No. 15 Boilers (9-2) rallied from a 17-point deficit and their own history of frustration for an 86-81 victory over No. 21 Notre Dame Saturday afternoon at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Yes, vindication was sweet.
“We wanted to win,” forward Caleb Swanigan said. “We were tired of losing to quality opponents. We made plays and strung stops together.”
A Crossroads Classic slug-fest had compressed to the final, few frantic moments. Purdue forward Vince Edwards had found his all-conference form. Swanigan was playing like the next Big Ten MVP. And guard Carsen Edwards was playing beyond his freshman youth.
Still, the Boilers had to go away from their powerball nature. They went small to stay with the Irish (9-2). That left 7-2 Isaac Haas out, with Swanigan at center and Vince Edwards at power forward.
“When we went small,” Vince Edwards said, “it made it easier for us to guard them.”
Did it ever. Notre Dame shot 60.6 percent in the first half, and just 38.2 percent in the second half. It scored 23 fewer points.
“Defensively we did a good job in the second half,” Painter said. “At halftime I told them, we can half the kind of second half Notre Dame did in the first half. There’s no reason why we can’t flip this, and play like Notre Dame did in the first half.”
That left Notre Dame coach Mike Brey, whose team had blown a lead against No. 1 Villanova a week earlier, wondering about what might have been.
“It’s a tough one to swallow,” he said.
Notre Dame’s fearsome offensive reputation found Saturday afternoon justification. The Irish had scored at least 83 points in eight of their first 10 games, and for a while threatened to break 100.
Then Boilers found their resolve.
This time, after half a decade of Crossroads Classic futility, and a pair of losses to ranked teams this season, they found success.
“To get a quality win against a team like Notre Dame … they don’t beat themselves,” Painter said. “They’ve had a lot of postseason success.
“This is huge for us. And also how we did it. The ability to come back like we did. It’s a huge confidence boost for us.”
Vince Edwards, thriving in his sixth-man role, had 20 points and 10 rebounds. Swanigan had a season-high 26 points and 10 rebounds, plus four blocks. Carsen Edwards added 11 points, three rebounds and three assists.
Notre Dame was led by forward Bonzie Colson’s 23 points and 10 rebounds. Guard Matt Farrell added 22 points and 10 assists. Forward V.J. Beachem, the former New Haven standout, had 10 points, but none in the second half.
“They really took V.J. away,” Brey said. “We don’t want him to force stuff. I’m glad he didn’t force anything.”
What happened in the second half?
“Coaching,” Brey said with a smile.
“It was probably a little bit of fatigue. Give Purdue credit. They really guarded the heck out of us in the second half. We couldn’t get anything going.”
Purdue was first-half fine … if you only count the offense. It had 38 points and committed only four turnovers, awesome for a team that averaged four times that many for a game.
However, Notre Dame scored eight points off those turnovers, part of a dominating offensive showing that included 60.6 percent shooting, 58.3 percent from three-point range. The Irish also had 12 assists against three turnovers, which is what you’d expect from the nation’s best ball-security team.
Purdue’s defense was totally outmatched.
The good news — the Boilers could do something about it in the second half.
And so they did.
Purdue’s 0-5 Crossroads Classic record weighed heavily on Boiler minds. So did the fact they had lost to their previous two ranked opponents — Villanova and Louisville.
With Notre Dame ranked No. 21, this was a final non-conference chance for Purdue to prove it was Big Ten ready.
Carsen Edwards showed his readiness with a pair of early steals that led to four quick Purdue points and a 9-9 tie from a 9-3 deficit.
With Notre Dame going small, Painter countered by taking out Haas, bringing in Vince Edwards and leaving Carsen Edwards in. That strategy was disrupted when Swanigan picked up his second foul seven minutes into the game. Out he went. In came Haas.
It didn’t matter. The Irish kept showing why they were one of the nation’s best offensive teams.
Notre Dame attacked the rim to surge to a 28-19 lead. Farrell led the way, as he has all year, with nine points and four assists. He got plenty of help from Beachem, who had 10 first-half points, including a spectacular one-hand dunk.
The Irish kept pushing, and the Boilers kept reeling. The lead grew to 12, then 15, then 17. By halftime, Notre Dame led 52-38 and Purdue was reduced to vying for second-half respectability.
Purdue got more than that. In three minutes, the deficit was down to four points. Two minutes later, the lead was two. The Boilers hustled on both ends as they hadn’t in the first half.
For nearly 10 minutes, Notre Dame held them off thanks in big part to Colson, whose inside quickness kept creating mismatch problems Purdue struggled to solve, not surprising given his double-double season average.
But the Boilers kept up the pressure, taking their first least at 67-65 on a Ryan Cline three-pointer. They built a five-point lead. Then it was six.
Still, Notre Dame stayed within range.
Then Boiler guard Dakota Mathias hit a crucial free throw with 19.1 seconds left to put Purdue ahead 85-81. Guard P.J. Thompson got an equally crucial rebound.
The Boilers had survived.
“To get a win against a ranked team, and to break our (Crossroads Classic losing streak), just boosts everybody,” Vince Edwards said.