Purdue’s season is hard to describe.
How does one describe a team that no one believed in after it lost four seniors? A team that started the season 6-5 and then made the Elite Eight? The only word that comes to mind is magic.
With only two returning seniors, one junior and the rest of the main lineup consisting of freshmen and sophomores, many believed this season to be a bit of a rebuild year. However, junior guard Carsen Edwards was coming back, opting to return to Purdue instead of declaring for the 2018 NBA draft, which gave some hope. But could he and the seniors carry the young team to any success?
The beginning of the season suggested no. Edwards was scoring and taking many of the team’s shots, but it didn’t get the Boilers past schools like Florida State, Michigan, Texas and Notre Dame. Purdue was sitting as a middle-of-the-pack team, looking at a mediocre season at best with many beginning to dismiss it as a non-threat.
Just as doubt seeped in, the Boilers won three straight games before losing to No. 6 Michigan State in East Lansing, Michigan. That’s where the season took a major turn.
Purdue won its next eight consecutive games, including victories over Indiana and Wisconsin, and avenged its loss to Michigan State with a 73-63 home win over the Spartans.
Suddenly there was hope. The season had hope, the players had hope and the fans had hope.
Up to that point in the season, the Boilers’ biggest struggle was finishing games. They showed a tendency to blow leads late and throw wins away, a trait that could have haunted the team if went unfixed. Head coach Matt Painter, however, found a way to fix the game-deciding issue, which was first evident in Bloomington, Indiana, against the Hoosiers.
The second matchup between Indiana and Purdue proved to be a defensive battle, where neither team was able to score. In the final seconds, the two teams were deadlocked at 46 points each before sophomore center Matt Haarms scored a short jumper to seal the 48-46 victory for the Boilers. The team showed grit, patience and a hunger for victory.
At home, Mackey Arena was just as magical for the team. The fans got behind the team and the Boilers delivered a victory every time, finishing 15-0 at home.
A few freshmen stars emerged throughout the regular season, including guard Eric Hunter Jr. and forward Trevion Williams. Redshirt freshman forward Aaron Wheeler also made his presence known with his athletic ability and shooting range. Although young, these players stepped up throughout the year and provided fans with high amounts of hope for the next few months — and years.
With the team finding its stride and sharing the regular season Big Ten title with Michigan State, it entered the conference tournament as a favorite to win. However, it didn’t, and the magic seemed to be over. Purdue fell in its first game against Minnesota in a defining loss.
The team took it well and saw the benefit in receiving more rest before the NCAA Tournament.
The Boilers received a No. 3 seed and traveled to Hartford, Connecticut, to face No. 13 Old Dominion. Purdue handled the Monarchs and then began preparing for the defending national champion, Villanova.
From the first five minutes of the game, Purdue had it won and the magic continued. The team shut down the Wildcats and caught fire on the court. The Boilers were peaking, and at the right time, shocking many.
However, an Admiral and his army stood in the way of the black and gold’s hopes. No. 2 Tennessee traveled to Louisville, Kentucky to meet the Boilers in an epic showdown. The Volunteers had been ranked consistently in the AP top five throughout the regular season, including earning the No. 1 ranking for some time behind the efforts of star senior guard, Admiral Schofield.
Tennessee had two of the nation’s top players in junior forward and SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams and Schofield. The two players had a lot of national attention going into the game, but had Purdue’s magic run out?
Senior guard Ryan Cline saved the Boilers with his lights-out shooting. Purdue blew a late double-digit lead and allowed Tennessee to come back, but Cline hit multiple late 3-pointers and sent the game to overtime, where the Boilers sealed the deal and the magical ride continued.
Purdue was going to the Elite Eight for the first time since 2000 with this team. The team many wrote off after starting 6-5 and losing four veteran players.
The Elite Eight game was yet another classic game, but with a heartbreaking end to the magic. The KFC Yum! Center felt like a home game; you couldn’t look anywhere in the arena and not see gold and black. Fans came together and supported the team when it mattered most.
Edwards sealed his name in Purdue history, breaking records and scoring 42 points, shooting 10-of-19 from behind the arc. Edwards did all he could for Purdue but it wasn’t enough to knock off No. 1 seed Virginia and earn a spot in the Final Four.
“It’s just a blessing to be able to learn and be around a bunch of good guys, not just on the court but off the court and continue to learn with them,” Edwards said. “Going through ups and downs and learning ways to handle things when they don’t go your way, not getting too high, not getting too low.”
This team did what other Purdue teams were unable to do, even teams with players like Robbie Hummel and Isaac Haas. It fought through adversity, doubt and inexperience to make Purdue history and give fans something to cheer for.
This team is owed a thank you for everything, especially Cline and senior forward Grady Eifert. The two seniors helped the program achieve something it couldn’t for almost two decades and gave young players the guidance they needed for future success.
“We’re a special group,” Eifert said. “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.”