LOUISVILLE, Ky. — When Ryan Cline was a little boy on the playground, he would imagine himself in an NBA game, draining big shot after big shot. He sat in his locker room Thursday night as Purdue’s hero of the game — of the season, maybe of the millennium — and thought back on that.
“You don’t love basketball if you don’t do that,” he said. “I’ve been playing ball my whole life. I felt like I had this game in me. . . and it came at a pretty good time.”
Pretty good? Yeah. It came just when Purdue was falling off a cliff in the South Regional, before the Boilermakers could revive themselves — with Cline administering the CPR — and win 99-94 in overtime. It came in a game that bordered on defying logic. Such as:
Purdue shot 52 percent in the second half — and somehow blew an 18-point lead.
Both teams shot as well at the 3-point line as they did at the free throw line. “It’s an odd box score,” Boilermakers coach Matt Painter would say later.
Tennessee went from scoring 28 points in the first half to 54 in the second. And then hit the wall in overtime.
Purdue’s Carsen Edwards, considered the most dangerous scorer on the floor, did not make a field goal the last 10 minutes of regulation, and only three the final 27 minutes of the game. But still ended up with 29 points. All his baskets this season, and turns out his biggest points of the year so far were free throws. With Purdue down two, he put up a last-ditch shot from the corner with 1.7 seconds left but drew a foul. He hit two of three to force overtime. Making all three would have been asking too much this night.
Oh, and one more thing.
The team that got away with missing 17 free throws . . . the team that returned only one starter this season and added no transfers or freshmen into the lineup . . . the team that at one point this year was 6-5 and mired in doubt — that’s the team one game from the Final Four, which it hasn’t seen in 39 years.
Hail, Purdue. Somehow.
“People counted us out,” Cline said. “We’re playing with kind of a free spirit.”
Especially him. Because the story of the guy who shot down Tennessee isn’t all that logical, either.
He’s a senior who arrived at the arena Thursday with a career scoring average of 6.2, never topping double figures in a season until this year. Before this season, he had played in 103 games, but started only seven. With Edwards pouring in 42 points on Villanova last week, who saw Cline coming?
As the game was crashing down around the Boilermakers in the second half, they had only four field goals the last 6:40. All four were Cline 3-pointers. When Tennessee not only roared back from 18 points behind but took the lead — the Vols looked like a freight train passing a telephone pole — Cline tied it. Bleeding stopped. When the Vols nursed a three-point lead into the last minute of regulation. He tied it again.
“Absolutely ridiculous, the shots he was making,” teammate Matt Haarms aid. “He was stepping up for us play, after play, after play.”
Or as another teammate, Grady Eifert, put it, “He was unconscious.”
Even that was almost not enough. Edwards' free throws were the final reprieve, and then Purdue owned the overtime, as this swaying game titled back its way.
“I think it changed just because they had the momentum and then we were able to find a way out,” Painter said. “They had the momentum, they had the game.”
Or they would have had Cline be conscious, and at least missed one or two late.
“Not a lot of things faze him,” Eifert said.
“He didn’t want to go home today. I can’t say it much better,” Purdue's Nojel Eastern added.
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As the night turned magical for Cline, he was looking in the stands, for home is just a couple of hours away, and he had 15 family members up there. “I was pointing at everybody,” he said.
And now a lot of Purdue people are pointing at him, wondering if this unlikely savior in an unlikely game is the piece in the March puzzle they have been waiting on for so long. It has been 19 years since the Boilermakers were in the Elite Eight, and their last Final Four was in 1980. Eons ago. Several good Purdue teams have tried to break that wall, and haven’t done it.
“We want to win for a lot of those guys that came before us,” Eifert said.
“We just had the poise and we had the toughness to finish it out,” Haarms said. “Not a lot of teams can do that against a team like Tennessee.”
No a lot of teams have a guy step out and go 7-for-10 in 3-pointers with the season on the line, either.