Purdue’s longest winning streak this season has been four games and that was to start the year. The Boilermakers haven’t lost more than two in a row.
So what’s that at tell you?
“We just keep hanging in there,” Junior swingman D.J. Byrd said. “Not always flashy, but we are a team. We’re confident.”
And that’s how the 10th-seeded Boilermakers feel going into Sunday’s game against No. 2-seed Kansas. They also needed a little swagger in their hearts to get past St. Mary’s 72-69 Friday night after blowing a 13-point second-half lead.
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Where Purdue’s confidence showed up was at the free-throw line, of all places.
The Boilermakers (22-12) ranked dead-solid last in the Big Ten in free-throw shooting at 65.2 percent. But Friday, they made 15 of 18 at the line, including four straight in the final 22 seconds. Lewis Jackson made the first two to allow Purdue to regain the lead 70-69.
“Right before we came out of the huddle, someone told me, `You’ll make ’em,” said Jackson, one of Purdue’s better free-throw shooters at 75 percent. “That’s all I needed to hear.
“When I got to the line, I just thought about those things you dream about as a little kid, hitting the shots.”
Purdue has won 14 straight opening games in the tournament, but it was a step from being on the way out as St. Mary’s overcame a 45-32 deficit to take a 69-68 lead with 44 seconds remaining.
“We kept our composure,” said All-Big Ten forward Robbie Hummel, who made the final two free throws with eight seconds remaining. “No one on the floor panicked.”
But they did draw a deep breath as St. Mary’s Rob Jones took aim on a three-pointer with one second remaining — and then exhaled when the shot missed to leave the Gaels a chilly 4 of 25 from beyond the arc.
If anything, the Boilermakers are scrappy. Not usually how you describe a Big Ten team. In the recent years, Purdue did fit that traditional Big Ten mold with size, muscle and big guards.
But things change. Gone are 6-foot-10 JaJuan Johnson and 6-4 guard E’Twaun Moore, now rookies with the Boston Celtics.
“We played inside out for five or six years,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said. “Now we play differently because we’re about quickness.”
The Boilermakers aren’t prone to mistakes. Their 10 turnovers against St. Mary’s was a shade more than their season average of 8.7 — tops in the nation for Division I teams.
But they’re also a donut. No center. Hummel, at 6-8, handles the inside mostly by himself. And he blew out his knee twice in the previous two seasons.
“But he plays with the same talent,” said Byrd, the Big Ten’s sixth man of the year. “Having him back this year just boosted our confidence.”
Perhaps even more importantly, Jackson has grown in his role as the point guard. The senior drove repeatedly on St. Mary’s on the way to scoring 18 points.
His game picked up by necessity after guard Kelsey Barlow was kicked off the team in mid-February after getting into a scuffle at a bar. It was the last straw for Barlow, who had been suspended for some games last season.
”When Kelsey left, (Jackson) elevated his game,” Painter said. “He played through his mistakes. That’s the kind of team we are.”
Notes — The Jayhawks lost to the Purdue 83-78 in the 1994 Sweet 16 in Knoxville, Tenn. KU defeated the Boilermakers 75-61 in a 1997 second-round game in Memphis.… Purdue finished sixth in the Big Ten at 10-8. . .This is Purdue’s sixth straight NCAA Tournament appearance.