LOUISVILLE, KY. – Ryan Cline used to rehearse taking last-second shots in his driveway growing up, hoping to be the hero. Who didn’t do that as a kid? he asked rhetorically.
“You’re thinking 3, 2, 1 and you’re in the NBA Finals,” he said, replaying the scenario out loud. “You don’t love basketball if you didn’t do that.”
Cline didn’t shoot his team into the NBA Finals, but his remarkable shooting performance Thursday kept Purdue alive in the NCAA tournament.
Cline was nearly perfect in the second half of a dazzling display of offense by two teams that took turns trading haymakers. When everyone was allowed to exhale, Purdue had escaped with a 99-94 victory over Tennessee in overtime to advance to the South Region final at KFC Yum! Center.
Cline became the star of an instant tournament classic. The senior guard scored 22 points in the second half on 8-for-9 shooting, including 6-for-7 from three-point range.
The Vols roared back from an 18-point deficit, but Cline refused to let his team lose. He matched every big shot by Tennessee with a long-distance rebuttal.
“I’ve been playing ball my whole life, and I feel I had this game in me somewhere,” he said.
The second half felt like a game of one-upmanship. Back and forth it went, one clutch shot after another. First Tennessee, then Purdue, then Tennessee, then Purdue.
The action literally took your breath away, a wild combination of incredible three-point shooting, horrendous free-throw shooting and a bang-bang foul with one second remaining.
How crazy was it? The Boilermakers made eight three-pointers and shot 52 percent from the field in the second half … and lost their 18-point lead.
“Man, that was obviously a great game,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said, exhaling.
Great was an understatement. Especially as applied to Cline, who could have shot with his eyes closed and not missed.
Cline looks like he’s trying to scratch his back when he rises up for a shot. He pulls the ball back behind his head, a distinctive form that gives him a high release.
The Vols couldn’t stop him. Cline’s shots weren’t even touching rim, nothing but net. He nailed three-pointers coming off screens, fading away, from NBA range, with defenders in his face. Looked as if he were playing H-O-R-S-E.
“There were times in the second half I was coming off [screens] and I knew I was going to shoot it,” he said.
Everyone in the arena knew it too, once he got on a roll. Didn’t matter. He kept swishing shot after shot.
“It just kind of happened,” he said. “My career high and it couldn’t have come at a better time.”
His biggest shot came with 37 seconds left with Purdue trailing 80-77. Cline dribbled up top, guarded by Grant Williams, the Vols’ All-America forward. The shot clock moved under 10 seconds. Cline darted inside the three-point line, then popped back out and drained the shot to tie the game.
“It was a good play on my part, I guess,” he said. “I thought he played great defense. I just hit a tough shot.”
The Boilermakers needed Cline’s hot hand because the Vols made 67 percent of their shots in the second half.
Tennessee took an 82-80 lead with 8.8 seconds left on Williams’ put-back dunk off a missed layup. After a timeout, Purdue’s Carsen Edwards drove the length of the floor, but Williams blocked his layup with 2.5 seconds left.
Purdue got the ball to Edwards in the corner on the inbounds, and he pulled up for a three-pointer. Lamonte Turner contested it and was called for a foul.
“Yes, I was fouled,” Edwards said.
A segment of Vols fans likely disagree, but Vols coach Rick Barnes said the officials got it right.
“It was a foul,” Barnes said. “He missed the shot. Lamonte hit him after the shot. It was three feet out of his hand when he hit him. We know the rule. You’ve got to allow the shooter to come back down.”
Edwards missed his first free-throw attempt but made the next two, forcing overtime. Cline fouled out with two minutes left in overtime, but his teammates picked him up this time.