Purdue big man Caleb Swanigan lost the second-half battle with Iowa State’s Deonte Burton – right up until his offensive rebound in the final seconds helped the Boilermakers reach the Sweet 16.
MILWAUKEE — Caleb Swanigan spent a better portion of crunch time Saturday night watching Deonte Burton make plays at his expense.
During a four-minute stretch, Iowa State isolated Burton at or near the top of the key. He got the first step on Swanigan for a dunk and a layup, then drained a 3, helping the Cyclones turn a 19-point deficit into a two-point lead in less than 11 minutes.
Those instances began just a few feet away from my seat on press row. Once when Burton got the ball, he appeared to look at Swanigan before saying, “Here we go.” Then he did his thing.
And it wasn’t much better at the other end for Swanigan, either. He went 5 of 13 from the floor in the second half, and his last field goal attempt didn’t even make it to the rim. Burton made sure of that, stuffing Swanigan’s potential game-clinching dunk and giving fifth-seeded Iowa State more life with 13.2 seconds remaining.
Then came redemption. Sweet, sweet redemption.
Dakota Mathias stepped to the free throw line with 11 seconds to go with Purdue up two and a chance to ice it. But Mathias, an 82 percent free throw shooter, clanged the front end of a one-and-one.
Burton had inside position on Swanigan, and the ball sailed their direction.
Burton leaped. Got a hand on it. Cyclones’ guard Matt Thomas swooped in, too. But there was Swanigan – determined, crafty Swanigan – reaching in between them to guide the ball with his fingernail. Burton stumbled backwards.
And the ball fell into Swanigan’s waiting hands. He’d won rebounding battles 440 times this season prior to that one, and he fed the result of No. 441 back to P.J. Thompson, who knocked down two clutch free throws to send Purdue to the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16 with an 80-76 victory. The Boilermakers hadn’t made it that far since 2010 prior to Saturday night.
And it’s not to say Swanigan played poorly prior to his deciding rebound. Biggie finished with 20 points, 12 boards and seven assists. But nothing was more significant than the last of his two offensive rebounds.
The Rebound, if you will.
“He got the huge rebound there at the end, and then … gets the ball to P.J. and makes the two free throws, getting the seven assists. His decision-making and his passing today were big,” said coach Matt Painter, whose fourth-seeded Boilermakers will face the winner of Kansas-Michigan State in the Sweet 16 in Kansas City.
“Obviously he’s put up points and rebounds all year, but I thought he did a really good job of making decisions. It’s great for everybody to see. He would be one of those guys that would be a good player if he was 5-11. Just a very small player, got good instincts, and one of the best players in the country, if not the best.”
The Big Ten Player of the Year might not be done collecting awards, and plays like The Rebound justify any honor Swanigan receives from here on out. But that’s the furthest thing from his mind right now.
Purdue still has more games to play. Four more, if he were to have it his way.
“I’m excited,” Swanigan said. “I’m ready to get back to campus and get to work and watch the game tomorrow, Kansas-Michigan State, and see who is left.”
The Boilermakers remain, in large part, because of The Rebound.