3/30/19 NCAA Tournament, Virginia, Coach Painter

Head coach Matt Painter watches from the sidelines during Saturday's Elite Eight game. 

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — It's not that it ended, it's how it ended.

It'd be easier to watch a 50-point blowout and give seniors Ryan Cline and Grady Eifert a proper send-off to a home crowd.

Not a desperate, last-second shot that happened to fall in. Not a missed 3-pointer from the team's best player. Not a missed pass from said player to the team's next-best player.

Heartbreak in the ending.

That's one way to describe the 80-75 loss to No. 1 seed Virginia on Saturday night.

Pride in the journey.

That's another — and the more important one.

This team went further than anyone's imagination: starting the season 6-5 to Big Ten champions. Losing in the first round of the conference tournament to making an Elite Eight appearance. Every step of the way, this team exceeded expectations thrown its way.

"They didn't let other people's opinion tell them how good they were going to be this year," head coach Matt Painter said, "and I think that's what it's all about."

The teams with expectations thrust upon them during the preseason — Baby Boilers, Painter's four seniors of 2018 — never delivered past the Sweet Sixteen.

This team not only exceeded expectations, but breathed life into a fan base that was desperate for anything positive. There was little hope at the beginning of the season.

Now?

Now there's more hope than ever. The coaching display that Painter put on this season is one that will go down in history — which makes the way this team lost that much worse.

The team was raining 3s in the first half, starting 7-of-10 from deep. And then Virginia's Kyle Guy made his statement. In the second half, after coming off an apparent ankle injury, he hit four consecutive 3-pointers to give Virginia a 7-point lead.

It's what Cline did 48 hours before that to all but seal the victory against Tennessee.

So why does this loss feel unjustified?

It's easier to watch a blowout, brush off the game and pick up the pieces. It's easier to process and pinpoint. Purdue football lost its bowl game by halftime to Auburn who beat them in the secondary over and over and over again.

The Boilers only struggled against the suffocating Virginia defense for a short run in the second half. Coming into the game, the Cavaliers had allowed opponents an average of 54.8 points.

Purdue actually shot better in the second half than the first. It beat every single shooting average that Virginia has kept opponents to.

The Cavs held opponents to 38.1 percent from the floor. Purdue shot 49.1 percent. The Cavs held opponents to 28.1 percent from deep. Purdue hit 43.8 percent from behind the arc.

And here is when the loss can be deduced to a handful of possessions.

Missed 3-pointers from sophomore center Matt Haarms and freshman guard Eric Hunter Jr. when Carsen Edwards was having the game of his career. Bad passes and questionable fouls from freshman center Trevion Williams. A missed free throw from Cline with 16 seconds left in the game.

You can pick and choose plays, fouls, missed shots, turnovers. Force the mistakes into a corner of your brain where it fits nicely, but doesn't really fit, or explain the whole story.

A puzzle piece in the wrong spot may fill a void, but it will never represent the real picture in the making.

The team was beat in a way that was inexplicable. Things didn't go the team's way on Saturday night. But it went the team's way the entire tournament. Things went the team's way the latter half of the season, as it compiled two winning streaks of eight wins and five wins, battling its ways towards a share of the Big Ten championship.

"We're a special group," said Eifert. "We never listen to outside people. Just worked hard every single day and just was able to get us places that a lot of teams can't say they've been."

The team will regroup, take a few weeks off from everything basketball related. Clear their minds, process the loss and move on from the sting of a loss so unexpected that was in their hands.

The future of the team's best player, Carsen Edwards, hangs in the balance. No matter what he chooses — stay for his senior campaign or leave for the NBA draft — his future is the same.

"It's bright," said Painter.

All signs point to Edwards leaving. He put up arguably his best performance as a Boilermaker against the toughest defense in the country.

His opponents hadn't seen anything like it, and at times, didn't know what to do but slow him down.

"We kept saying, 'Keep bothering his shots,'" Virginia head coach Tony Bennett said. "'Keep moving him on offense. See if we can wear him out. Screen him, move him, run him. It was like, it's going to happen sooner or later. He did not get tired and he kept making the shots. That's why when he made the bank shot, I said, 'My Lord.' It was impressive."

Recommended for you