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Tennessee Came Back From 18 Down Just to Blow It Again

The Volunteers overcame a second-half deficit against Purdue and seemingly had the Sweet 16 matchup won before a late foul and a poor showing in overtime changed their fate

Purdue v Tennessee Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

With 1.7 seconds left in regulation and his team trailing by two, Carsen Edwards rose with a chance to be the hero.

Just moments prior in Thursday’s Sweet 16 matchup, the diminutive Purdue junior had the same opportunity, driving at the rim in an attempt to claw his team back into a game it had previously led by 18. With four seconds left on the clock, he launched toward the hoop, jumped, and released only for Tennessee’s Grant Williams to send the ball into the pine. And though the referees originally ruled possession would remain with the Boilermakers, replay seemed to indicate the call would be reversed. Unseen to the official who passed judgment, the ball appeared to bounce off Edwards’s flailing leg. The game looked like it would end 82-80, and it appeared the Volunteers would continue to toy with fate for at least two more days.

Only the March Madness Gods had other plans. Replay was inconclusive, Purdue kept the ball, and Edwards had another chance to save the day. With seconds left, he launched a misguided 3 from the corner—another would-be end to a firecracker contest—but was bailed out yet again, when Lamonte Turner was called for a questionable shooting foul.

He made two of three at the line to tie the game at 82, setting up a chance for one of Tennessee’s stars to cement themselves in March Madness lore. With under two seconds remaining, the Volunteers inbounded, and then made a second pass before calling a timeout. They were left to inbound again from near half court with one-tenth of a second remaining—not nearly close enough to the basket to get a clean look at a tip-in and not enough time for a shot. Tennessee’s last-second prayer didn’t come close, and in overtime, Purdue reasserted its dominance, winning a back-and-forth affair, 99-94.

Tennessee fans cried foul online, complaining about the foul call that sent Edwards to the stripe, and citing their version of the Zapruder film, which may have showed the guard with his heel out of bounds before he took the shot. But their ire could’ve just as easily been pointed toward their own coach: The Vols’ disastrous final possession of regulation reminded fans of something they’d likely known for years: Nothing can ever be easy when it comes to Tennessee or Rick Barnes.

In 17 seasons as head coach at Texas, Barnes led the Longhorns to 16 NCAA tournament appearances, but just one Final Four, and 11 first- or second-round exits, despite having a plethora of NBA talent like Kevin Durant and LaMarcus Aldridge at his disposal. Tennessee, under Barnes and former coaches Cuonzo Martin and Bruce Pearl, has experienced similar letdowns, reaching five Sweet 16s since 2006, but made the Elite Eight only once. Even before Thursday’s letdown, disaster had been waiting just around the corner.

In the second round, the Vols blew a 25-point lead against Iowa and needed overtime and a combined 38 points from Williams and Admiral Schofield to escape the first weekend alive. In Thursday’s Sweet 16 matchup, they climbed out of a 51-33 hole in the last 16 minutes of regulation, and it seemed reasonable to expect that they’d find a way to keep the magic going.

Tennessee’s dynamo wing, Schofield—who with Williams gave the Vols a one-two punch that allowed them to bully past some of the country’s best this year—was ice cold in the first half, scoring just one point before putting 20 more on the board in the second frame and overtime combined. Williams himself finished the game with 21 points but was inexplicably left on the bench to begin overtime because Barnes was worried about his playing with four fouls. (He’d eventually foul out late in OT.)

In the 81 seconds he spent on the pine before returning to the game, Tennessee fell into a hole they wouldn’t emerge from. Purdue, aided by a pair of electrifying performances of their own, did just enough to escape the Sweet 16 with a victory and advance to their first Elite Eight since 2000.

With their backs against the wall late in the game, the Boilermakers turned to Ryan Cline. The Purdue senior hit six 3s in the second half, including four in four and a half minutes to keep his team within punching distance of the Vols toward the end of regulation. His final total of 27 points on 10-of-13 shooting (7-of-10 from deep) was a career high.

When Cline finally exited the game two minutes into overtime after picking up his fifth foul, he handed the baton over to Edwards, who sealed the Boilermakers victory with clutch free throw shooting. And while Tennessee and its much-maligned coach have had their own share of disappointing NCAA tournament failures, the victory represented a welcome change for Purdue.

Last season, the Boilermakers rose as high as third in the AP poll and were awarded a no. 2 seed in the Big Dance only to lose by 13 in the Sweet 16 against an athletic Texas Tech squad. The year before, they were crushed by Kansas in the same round as a no. 4 seed, 98-66. A double-overtime upset to Little Rock in the opening round of the 2016 tournament as a no. 5 seed and similarly tough exits in 2009, 2010, and 2011 likely left Purdue fans expecting the worst once Tennessee’s furious comeback began.

But now, for the first time in nearly two decades, Purdue fans can breathe a sigh of relief. The Boilermakers have finally broken through their supposed ceiling, and, with a win over a Virginia team that has looked shaky for much of March, or an Oregon squad that boasts just the 72nd-best offense in the nation, per KenPom, they can punch their ticket to their first Final Four since 1980.