The first significant happening on The Road to the Final Four may have taken place in Minneapolis on Wednesday night depending upon the results of an MRI on Thursday. Purdue forward Robbie Hummel went down with a knee injury in the first half and was unable to return to action. Seemingly in control of the game at that point, the Boilermakers fell victim to a Golden Gopher run to take the lead and Minnesota led by as many as nine in the second half. But that's when the Boilers made their charge, eventually taking the lead for good on a Keaton Grant jumper from the top of the key with eight seconds remaining. A Devoe Joseph jumper missed long, giving Purdue a 65-64 win that could ultimately prove to be costly.
"Obviously, we missed him, because we had a good start to the game," said Purdue head coach Matt Painter on Hummel. "He gives us a balance to the game. He can go inside or outside, and he's a good passer. When we lost him, it hurt us a little bit (quote courtesy of the University of Minnesota)." It's one thing to lose a guy in the middle of a game and have to adjust as the game wears on. But to lose a player the caliber of Hummel for an extended period time would be a major blow. His versatility and ability to contribute offensively from either the perimeter or inside with his shooting and scoring gives Purdue an option few teams have an answer for.
What did Hummel's absence mean at Minnesota? It meant more minutes for JaJuan Johnson (14 pts, 10 reb, 3 blk, 40 min) and added offensive responsibility for Grant, who finished with 10 points, five rebounds and four assists. "Obviously, Keaton Grant made a big shot," said Painter. "He's been very valuable to our team, especially the last three games." Grant would have needed to step up regardless of the circumstances going into March. But the possible loss of Hummel adds urgency to the situation, and Grant answered the call on Wednesday night.
Three Key Happenings
1. Notre Dame picks up a big win over Pittsburgh in South Bend. No Luke Harangody once again for Mike Brey's squad, but unlike their prior contests without the All-American Notre Dame rose to the challenge in knocking off Pittsburgh 68-53. Instead of their usual offense-first style that breeds a faster tempo, the Irish slowed the game down and knocked down perimeter shots (10-18 3PT) in ending the Panthers five-game win streak while also breathing some life back into their fleeting NCAA Tournament hopes. Tim Abromaitis led the way with 17 points while Ben Hansbrough and Tory Jackson added fifteen and fourteen points respectively, and Pitt made just four of eighteen shots from behind the arc.
Also of note are the rebounding numbers; Notre Dame was a plus-9 in rebounding margin, grabbing eleven offensive boards on the night. It was almost as if every three that Notre Dame missed ended up back in their hands, allowing them to run more time off the clock. "He said that we had to make sure that they didn't get the rebound when they missed one, but they did," said Pitt guard Jermaine Dixon. "They just outplayed us and wanted it more than we did. There's not much else I can say about it (quote courtesy of the University of Notre Dame)." And with their backs to the wall Notre Dame knows that they can't afford to be outworked, and their reward on Wednesday was a win that keeps them alive.
2. San Diego State and Dayton blow opportunities to pick up signature road victories. The Aztecs and Flyers had good opportunities to make definitive statements to the selection committee on the road. But neither took advantage of the opportunity, and both are now in danger of missing the NCAA Tournament. SDSU fell victim to the perimeter shooting of BYU and an under-the-weather Kawhi Leonard, who managed just three points in their 82-68 loss in Provo. Jimmer Fredette and Jackson Emery combined to score 43 points and the Cougars were a plus-16 in free throw attempts for the game. D.J. Gay led the way for the visitors with fifteen points but they nullified seventeen assists with sixteen turnovers, many of which were converted into points on the other end. And as a result, Steve Fisher's team needs to win their last two plus go on a run at the Mountain West Tournament.
Dayton's going to need a run in Atlantic City due to their recent struggles, the most recent being a 49-41 loss at Temple in what may best be described as a rock fight. While the Owls shot just 32.1% from the field that could be described as scalding in some some circles when compared to Dayton shooting 26.3%. Chris Wright led the visitors, who dropped to 7-6 in conference play and 18-9 overall, with 12 points and 13 rebounds while Ramone Moore scored 13 to lead Temple. The difference in Philadelphia: Temple got to the foul line. The Owls finished 13-21 from the charity stripe while Dayton made just six of nine. Not the best shooting team to begin with, Brian Gregory's team must attack the rim in their remaining games if they're to play at their best. Their NCAA Tournament hopes rest on it.
3. From rags to riches: Stony Brook clinches the America East title. Just last season the Seawolves managed to finish outside of the opening round game for the first time in their history as a member of America East. Considering that bit of history makes their rise to regular season champions of the conference all the more improbable, and given their struggles through the years it's fitting that they had to hold off Vermont in winning 82-78. The first thirty-two minutes or so played out like a coronation, with Muhammad El-Amin, Bryan Dougher, Dallis Joyner and the rest of the rotation doing whatever they wanted in building up a 20-point lead.
But the Catamounts would not go quietly, cutting the lead all the way down to two before a Chris Martin free throw with 1.8 seconds remaining sealed the game. Now winners of ten straight, Steve Pikiell's team will now have to handle the role of favorite in next weekend's conference tournament at the University of Hartford. But while there's still more work to be done the significance of this title can't be ignored when considering where the program was when Coach Pikiell took over.
Top Three Games
1. Marquette 63, St. John's 61 (OT) Jimmy Butler recovered a loose ball in the corner and knocked down an off-balance shot as time expired to give the Golden Eagles the win at Carnesecca Arena. Lazar Hayward led all scorers with 22 and Butler added 18 points while D.J. Kennedy led the Red Storm with 20.
2. Cal-State Fullerton 70, Cal Poly 68 Jacques Streeter banked in a 15-foot runner as time expired to give the Titans the win in San Luis Obispo. Streeter led all scorers with 21 points while Shawn Lewis led the Mustangs with 19.
3. Ohio 70, Miami (Ohio) 68 Tommy Freeman knocked down a three pointer with six tenths of a second remaining to give the Bobcats the win in Athens. DeVaughn Washington led all scorers with 25 points while Kenny Hayes led the RedHawks with 20.
Three Notable Performances
1. G/F Aubrey Coleman (Houston) Add Memphis to the list of Coleman's victims as he scored 34 points and grabbed eight rebounds in the Cougars' 92-75 victory.
2. F Evan Turner (Ohio State) The National Player of the Year candidate posted a stat line of 25 points, seven rebounds, seven assists, three steals and two blocks.
3. F Jarvis Varnado (Mississippi State) Varnado scored 17 points while also grabbing ten rebounds and blocking eight shots, with the final number making him the NCAA career blocks leader. And not to be left out, Varnado's close friend Barry Stewart broke the school's career record for made three pointers in the 74-66 win over Alabama.