Name a team sport and it’s evident that good things generally occur when defense takes center stage.
It was certainly the case Friday afternoon when Purdue University’s defensive intensity, especially in a 6½-minute stretch to open the second half, turned the momentum as the Boilermakers stopped Siena 72-64 in an NCAA men’s basketball tournament South Regional opener before 10,895 at the Arena.
The fourth-seeded Boilermakers (28-5) meet No. 5 Texas A&M (24-9) on Sunday. Texas A&M handled Utah State 69-53.
Purdue trailed 32-29 at halftime. When sophomore guard Ryne Smith hit a 3-pointer with 13:32 remaining, the Boilermakers’ 23-5 run to open the second half translated into a 52-37 lead.
“I thought the key to the game was how we came out in the second half, the first five minutes,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said. “Keaton Grant made some huge 3s for us to get us going. We got stops, we got steals, that led to points … and (we) really just had a lot of energy.”
Grant, a sophomore guard who went 0 for 4 from 3-point range in the first half, made three straight 3-pointers in the first 3:50 of the second half. All of 11 of Grant’s points came in the half’s opening five minutes.
“We were getting a lot of open looks, great looks at shots that we usually make,” Grant said of the first half. “The coaches and the players on the bench (kept) telling me to stay with it, they’re going to fall, and that’s exactly what I did.”
Purdue junior center JuJuan Johnson got his third slam dunk, allowing the Boilermakers to maintain their 15-point advantage (56-41) with 12:17 to go. But Siena (27-7) started to fight back.
Siena cut the lead to less than double digits when senior point guard Ronald Moore hit a jumper with 7:24 remaining.
The Boilermakers used a 6-0 spurt to push the margin back to 15 points before the Saints dug down one last time. A 10-0 run, capped by a basket in the key by Ryan Rossiter, pulled Siena within 66-63 with 69 seconds to go.
The Saints immediately fouled Purdue sophomore guard Lewis Jackson. His first foul shot in the 1-and-1 opportunity was deadened by the back iron but fell through, and a look of relief flashed across Jackson’s face. He made the second shot to extend the lead to 68-63 with 49 seconds remaining.
Purdue got two more free throws from senior guard Chris Kramer and Johnson in the final 33 seconds to secure things.
“It all started with the defensive end,” said Johnson, who finished with a game-high 23 points and 15 rebounds. “We got those stops early on and it’s just like the momentum kind of just shifted our way and we play good defense it usually turns over to some good offense.”
Siena was looking to pull off a first-round upset for a third straight year.
“I was just very impressed with our team’s fight,” Siena coach Fran McCaffery said. “We had some opportunities to run and hide when they made the run in the second half, and we made the run back. And I think it’s a testament to the character of our team.”