The regular season came to a close on Saturday with the Boilermakers earning a convincing 89-73 win over Minnesota. It has been a frustrating year for this 15-16 Purdue team, but it's showing what potential it has at the right time.
The Boilermakers that lost early-season games to Bucknell and Eastern Michigan have grown up. Now, Purdue is playing like an NCAA Tournament-caliber team. It's only hope of reaching that goal is winning four consecutive games in next week's conference tournament.
"We just dug ourselves a hole that's too big," said Purdue coach Matt Painter, glancing back to the Boilermakers' early woes. "But our guys understand that if we're going to play in the NCAA Tournament, we're going to have to win four straight in Chicago."
Purdue played with fire right from the start, while weary Minnesota never made it a contest.
In the opening minute, guard Terone Johnson set the tone with a three-pointer. That sparked a 30-9 run to open the game.
"Getting off to that good start really helped us get some confidence," Painter explained.
A 14-4 Golden Gopher run toward the first half's end was thwarted by back-to-back threes from D.J. Byrd and Terone Johnson. Byrd, a Crawfordsville, Ind. native, finished with 18 points on Senior Day.
The closest Minnesota would come was within seven points, but Purdue would put it away with under 14 minutes remaining in the game. Anthony Johnson hit a jumper, then Rapheal Davis extended the Boilermaker lead to a double-digit margin with a shot from the paint.
Davis finished the game with 18 points, causing many problems for Minnesota's talented frontcourt.
"When he's aggressive, I don't know if there are many people that can stop him," guard Dru Anthrop said of Davis.
With 42 seconds remaining in the game, Coach Painter removed Byrd and Anthrop, Purdue's two seniors, from the game. The 14,082 fans in Mackey Arena offered a rousing ovation for the two local products. As Anthrop walked off the court, he noticed Byrd getting choked up and that forced him into tears, too.
"I try to take things in stride and appreciate them as they happen, but it's hard to do," Anthrop later said. "You appreciate them when they're gone."
The sharp-shooting Byrd, who committed to Purdue as a high-school sophomore, was a team-leading scorer with 18 points in his final game. Glancing at the stat sheet following the game—and an emotional Senior Day ceremony—he evaluated his Mackey farewell.
"I did miss a free throw," Byrd said. "That was frustrating."
Purdue's likely postseason destination is the NIT or CBI, though first comes its last chance—four possible games in the Big Ten Tournament, which opens Thursday at United Center. The Boilermakers believe in their chance to dance.
"I wish we could've figured this out a long time ago," Anthrop said. "But the end of the season is when you want to be moving in the right direction. I think we are."