LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The greatest game of Ryan Cline's life reached its apex in the final minute of regulation Thursday night.
It climaxed with Cline transforming into Steph Curry in an arena dripping with tension, Purdue’s season on the line and in his hands. His 14-dribble masterpiece, working Southeastern Conference Player of the Year Grant Williams like a puppeteer before launching a step-back 3-pointer to tie the game with 38 seconds left, was his seventh of the game, sixth of the second half, and gave him a career-high 27 points. The Boilermakers needed every last one of those points.
Toying with Williams showed how far he had come from his days as an undersized kid launching jumpers on a driveway hoop in the Indianapolis suburb of Carmel. Cline was 5-foot-7 as a high school freshman. His dad, Michael, a former player at Ohio State, took no mercy on the little guy in their driveway games.
"My dad whooped me all the time," Cline said. "I don't think I beat him until my sophomore year of high school, when I finally grew."
Cline is all grown up now, a 6-foot-6 college senior who went from a solid Purdue starter to a Purdue legend here with one of the most spectacular shooting displays in recent NCAA tournament memory. He tied his career high by making seven 3-pointers against Tennessee, six in the second half, the unexpected star of a wild, dramatic, 99-94 overtime March classic.
If Cline doesn't rain buckets on Tennessee, Purdue's first trip to a regional final in 19 years doesn't happen. He helped the Boilermakers build an 18-point lead, then rescued them after the lead was lost and it looked like the Volunteers were going to sprint right past Purdue and roll to victory.
Cline wouldn't let it happen, shouldering a load so large that Purdue Pete would find it daunting. Bomb after bomb, from deep and deeper, one more clutch than the next, Tennessee powerless to stop him, he willed the game into overtime. His teammates took it from there, finally cracking the determined Vols in the extra period.
"We were up against it tonight," Purdue coach Matt Painter said. "They made that run, and that momentum is moving if he doesn't make a couple of those shots. He stepped up and made some really tough shots."
When Tennessee took a 70-67 lead, its first since 3-0, the orange section of the Yum Center roared its approval. Twenty-one seconds later, Cline swished a 3-pointer to tie it.
When the Vols again took a three-point lead, 73-70, Cline answered 22 seconds later to tie it again.
When Tennessee took a two-point lead with 3:06 remaining, Cline responded with another 3-pointer 18 seconds later for a brief Purdue lead.
And when the Vols one last time budged the lead to three at 80-77, Cline worked Williams for that last 3 just before the shot clock expired.
For a guy averaging 11.7 points per game, in his first season as a college starter, this was an epic night of clutch shooting — a Purdue fever dream from the Rick Mount days 50 years ago.
"He didn't want to go home today," Boilers teammate Nojel Eastern said.
Cline made one last contribution at the very end of regulation, and that was needed as well.
He was the baseline inbounder with Tennessee leading 82-80, just 2.7 seconds on the clock. The first two options on the play were covered, and Purdue was teetering toward what would have been a game-ending five-second call. Then Cline spied fellow guard Carsen Edwards in the corner and passed it to him.
Edwards launched and missed, but Tennessee guard Lamonte Turner, trailing the play, lunged at him and made contact after the shot. Vols fans howled in outrage, but they shouldn't have.
"I was fouled," Edwards said.
"It was a foul," Vols coach Rick Barnes agreed.
It was a foul, and Edwards went to the line with the chance to win it with three free throws with 1.7 seconds on the clock. The 85 percent foul shooter missed the first — continuing a persistently, astonishingly awful game for both teams at the line — but then made the last two to force overtime.
"Kind of an odd box score," Painter said, and that's an understatement. Purdue shot 48.4 percent from the 3-point line and 48.5 percent from the foul line. Tennessee shot 50 percent from both.
For one strange night, the long balls — many of them contested — were as easy to make as the uncontested 15-footers. And nobody was better with the long ball than Ryan Cline.
It was the perfect time for an archetypal Indiana driveway shooter to grow all the way up and become an Indiana legend.
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