LOUISVILLE, Ky. — While the fans at the KFC Yum! Center here in Louisville caught their breath Thursday night after a classic duel between Purdue and Tennessee in the first game of the South Region doubleheader, No. 1 seed Virginia and No. 12 Oregon slogged through a tight, mediocre first half.
The Cavaliers took a 30-22 lead into halftime, and appeared on their way to a comfortable — if not picturesque — victory.
But Oregon clawed its way back in the second half and took the lead, 42-40, on a 3-pointer by Louis King with 8 minutes 32 seconds remaining.
Suddenly, the Cavaliers — who made the wrong kind of history last year by becoming the first No. 1 seed in the N.C.A.A. men’s basketball tournament ever to fall to a No. 16 (the University of Maryland, Baltimore County) — were once again being pushed hard by an opponent seeded in the double digits.
But this time, they did not succumb. After several tight possessions on both ends of the floor, Virginia guard Ty Jerome made a 3-pointer to give the Cavaliers a 48-45 lead with 3:30 to play — an advantage they would not relinquish. Virginia went on to prevail, 53-49.
“It was a knuckle-buster or whatever you want to call it,” Virginia Coach Tony Bennett said. “We had to fight.”
For Bennett, a knuckle-buster is, of course, highly preferable to a bracket-buster. A top-seeded Virginia again going down in an early tournament upset would have shattered brackets across the country.
But this is a team that lives on the edge. And so, despite the fact that the game was mired in the 40s through much of the second half, the Cavaliers did not panic.
“The game is never out of reach until the final buzzer goes off,” Jerome said, with a nod to the Ducks. “They’re such a capable team, such a great defensive team.”
Virginia is well versed in that style. The Cavaliers entered the night averaging 71.6 points per game — just inside the top 200 in the N.C.A.A. But they also led the nation in defense, yielding just 55 points per game — 3.2 better than Michigan, which sat at No. 2 on the list.
“You hang on and hang your hat on that defense,” Bennett said. “And hopefully you get enough offense.”
The Cavaliers got enough on Thursday. They question is whether they will do the same on Saturday in the regional final against No. 3 seed Purdue, which scored 99 points in its thrilling overtime victory against Tennessee. And whether, even if Virginia advances to the Final Four, the critiques of its slow-paced, defense-first style will abate.
“Ugly is in the eye of the beholder,” Bennett said after Thursday’s tight win. “Maybe it wasn’t great, but I thought it was pretty good-looking for us defensively.”
ImagePurdue forward Aaron Wheeler (1) tries to control the ball as Tennessee forward Kyle Alexander (11), guard Jordan Bowden (23), and guard Lamonte Turner (1) defends during Purdue’s overtime win Thursday in the N.C.A.A. tournament’s round of 16.CreditJamie Rhodes/USA Today Sports, via Reuters
For Purdue, the round of 16 has been a dead end the past two seasons. In 2017, the Boilermakers were blown out in the regional semifinals by Kansas. A year later, Texas Tech dashed Purdue’s hopes in the very same round.
But on Thursday night in Louisville — in an absolute thriller before a spirited crowd — that elusive victory proved sweet for the Boilermakers.
Purdue, which frittered away an 18-point lead over the course of a remarkable second half, managed to survive in grueling, agonizing, but ultimately exhilarating fashion — defeating second-seeded Tennessee, 99-94, in overtime.
This was a tale of two games wrapped into one. The first featured careless shots, missed free throws and sloppy play. The second, conversely, showcased the game at its finest — with both clubs making everything in sight, showing the determination and grit which allowed them to reach this point in the N.C.A.A. tournament.
“Our guys hung in there,” Purdue Coach Matt Painter said.
He was particularly proud of a few key defensive stops, saying, “I know it was a high scoring game. But it was tough to get them.”
The Boilermakers took command early. With the game tied, 13-13, Purdue took command of a choppy first half behind a 10-0 run. Carsen Edwards, who had been silenced for the first 7 minutes of the contest, caught fire — reeling off 8 points in a span of 4 minutes 38 seconds, starting a run that culminated in a game-high 29 points.
The Volunteers failed to find any sort of rhythm offensively in the first half. A missed dunk by Admiral Schofield midway through the first half served as a fitting symbol of Tennessee’s offensive futility over the first 20 minutes, as the Volunteers went into the locker room at halftime down by 40-28.
It appeared to be the same story early on in the second half. Purdue extended its margin to 18 within the first 4 minutes. The throngs of orange-clad fans in the crowd — having made the relatively short drive from Knoxville — appeared utterly despondent.
But then their Volunteers came storming back. An 11-3 run cut the margin to 9, before an Edwards 3-pointer coming out of a timeout momentarily stemmed the tide. Tennessee, though, kept up the momentum. Schofield, who had just 1 point in Tennessee’s woeful first half, finished the night with 21.
Lamonté Turner buried a 3-pointer to tie the game at 65-65. And from there, the two determined squads put on a show. Suddenly, the offensive ineptitude that peppered the first half had been replaced by brilliance.
Purdue’s Ryan Cline went 10-of-13 on the night, and 7-of-10 from 3-point range, en route to 27 points. None, though, were bigger than his turnaround 3-pointer to tie the game at 80-80 with 38 seconds to play.
Tennessee, though, took the lead on the next possession. A Grant Williams dunk off a miss by Turner put the Volunteers up, 82-80.
Down by 2, Edwards drove to the basket and was blocked by Williams with 2.5 seconds to play. The ball went out of bounds, and there was some question as to whether it went off Edwards’s foot — resulting in a turnover which would have effectively ended the game. But the officials gave Purdue the ball.
Williams, for his part, was unsure who last touched the ball.
“I couldn’t tell you,” Williams said. “When I blocked the shot, I didn’t know if it went off me or his leg or anything.”
Edwards proceeded to get the ball again. He launched a 3-pointer from the right wing, and was fouled.
The foul was a huge call in Purdue’s favor, but Tennessee’s Coach Rick Barnes acknowledged that the officials got it right.
“We know the rule,” he said. “You’ve got to allow the shooter to come back down. It’s a tough one, because in that situation, we know we can’t foul there and they’ve got to make that shot.”
And so Edwards, his team’s leading scorer, stepped to the line with a chance to put his club ahead with 1.7 seconds to play. An 85.2 percent foul shooter, Edwards missed the first — to the roar of the Tennessee faithful. But Edwards turned aside the earsplitting noise and calmly sank the second and third free throws to square the contest at 82-82. Tennessee failed to get off a shot on the ensuing possession, and the game went to overtime.
The extra period belonged to the Boilermakers. It was a session in which they never trailed. With less than two minutes to play, the No. 3 seed put the game away, as Grady Eifert delivered a perfect pass to Matt Haarms — who had a step on his defender and was cutting toward the basket — to put the Boilermakers up 7. They made enough free throws the rest of the way to put the game on ice, giving Purdue a victory that was three years in the making.