DENVER – The improbable one-year turnaround at Arkansas-Little Rock is now flirting with amazing.
Coach Chris Beard added 10 players to his roster after being hired in April last year and guided that team to a Sun Belt Conference championship and an NCAA tournament bid. Now the team has won an NCAA tourney game as well.
Behind the ridiculously clutch shooting of senior guard Josh Hagins, the 12th-seeded Trojans came back from 14 down in the second half to knock off fifth-seeded Purdue 85-83 in double overtime Thursday.
“I thought most people in the building probably thought we were about knocked out,” Beard said, when asked to compare the game to the famous boxing match of his choice. “And they got to about eight, nine and our guys got up there in the end. We got into our press. The players believed in it. We hit some big shots.”
Hagins, who celebrated his 22nd birthday Thursday, got a stern talking to from Beard at halftime following a lackluster 1-for-5 performance in the first half. Hagins responded with 29 second-half points, making nine of 15 shots to score 31 in the game. In the space of 20 minutes, he went from afterthought to the man who put fear and ultimately regret in the eyes of the Boilermakers.
When he got to a rowdy, victorious locker room, Hagins hugged his coach and thanked him for challenging him at halftime. That pep talk, as much as anything, led the Trojans to a second-round meeting with Iowa State on Saturday.
“I’m a senior,” Hagins said. “I’ve waited 22 years, to be honest, to get to this point, this one game. I wasn’t going to go out like that. I wasn’t going to go out without a fight. I made shots, missed them. I was going to go out swinging.”
Purdue center A..J. Hammons came back for one more year at Purdue when he could have turned pro last summer because he didn’t like how the Boilermakers' disappointing 2015 first-round tourney loss made him feel. But Hammons was unable to prevent it from happening again.
Purdue is one of the biggest teams in the nation but doesn’t have a true point guard, which became a problem in the final four minutes when Arkansas-Little Rock turned up the pressure defense in an effort to come from behind. It worked perfectly and Purdue coach Matt Painter didn’t seem to have an answer.
“Obviously, you know, their lead guard was really good,” Painter said. “He was able to make plays. A lot of times when you get into the tournament, when you have a playmaker such as him, that ended up being the difference in the game, in my opinion.
“But, you know, on a neutral court, I was at Eastern Illinois and Southern Illinois, you fight for these opportunities, to be able to get into these situations and get these wins. They were able to hang in there. You have to give them credit.”
Hagins grew up in central Arkansas idolizing men from the area who had made a name for themselves on the basketball court, such as former Trojan and Los Angeles Laker Derek Fisher, who was in the crowd Thursday supporting his alma mater. Hagins kept pointing to Fisher at different points and again when victory was secured.
Arkansas-Little Rock cut the lead to one point twice in the final minute of regulation with Hagins and Lis Shoshi making huge 3-pointers.
Purdue forward Vince Edwards went to the free throw line with 17.8 seconds left. He hit both free throws to give the Boilermakers a three-point lead. Hagins then brought the ball up court and let a deep 3-pointer go from four feet beyond the arc and held up his hands as it found the net, sending the game to overtime.
It might not have reached overtime if Edwards had been more aware of the time remaining after Hagins tying shot. Edwards received the inbound pass with six seconds remaining, but held the ball before moving it up the court. If there had been no hesitation there, the Boilermakers might have been able to get a good look at a game-winning attempt.
“That was a mistake on my part mentally,” Edwards said.
Edwards led the Boilermakers with 24 points. Purdue outrebounded Arkansas-Little Rock by seven but committed 18 turnovers.
Purdue had its chances but curiously couldn’t seem to get the ball in the hands of Hammons on the offensive end and take advantage of ability in the post. He scored scored 16 points and had 15 rebounds in the game but wasn’t the force he needed to be with the game on the line.
Purdue had a final chance to win trailing by one in the waning moments of the second overtime, but Johnny Hill appeared to lose his footing as he drove toward the basket and turned the ball over. Hagins then found himself at the free throw line one final time where he made one and missed the second forcing Purdue to heave the ball at the basket at the buzzer.
The desperation throw missed the mark, sending the Trojans to the second round where they'll face No. 4 seed Iowa State.
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