Unlikely star Ethan Morton's defense? Sweet. Very, very sweet as Purdue storms on
Jaden Ivey hit Sunday’s night’s biggest shot.
Trevion Williams was the game’s biggest physical force.
Mason Gillis was the most fierce rebounder.
But Ethan Morton? He was the one who changed the game. The sophomore guard doesn’t get the headlines of the Boilermakers’ Big 3 — Ivey, Williams and Edey combined for 51 points and 20 in Purdue’s 81-71 Round 2 NCAA Tournament win over Texas — nor should he, but he affects games in numerous ways, some measurable and some not.
Arguably, the 9th-player in the Boilermakers’ 10-man rotation was the game’s MVP: He played 22 big minutes, including the last 14 of the game, while hitting 2 gigantic 3-pointers, plus a couple other free throws. But it was what he did on the defensive end that made Morton so darn valuable.
Coach Matt Painter made a significant adjustment early in the second half, putting Morton on Texas star guard Marcus Carr. And the plan worked. After Carr scored 7 points in the first 6 minutes after halftime, giving him 18 for the game, Painter made the switch.
It paid immediate dividends. Carr missed his next 5 field goal attempts, plus had a turnover before finally getting loose for 2 jumpers in the final 3-plus minutes. The second one pulled the Longhorns within 3 with 91 seconds left, but by then Morton had done enough to frustrate the former Minnesota guard. After Carr’s last triple, which Ivey answered with a deep one of his own, Morton followed by creating a huge turnover, tipping a ball that then glanced off Texas guard Courtney Ramey.
And with that, Purdue had all but sealed up its 6th trip to the Sweet 16 under Painter.
Although the Boilermakers are still 2 victories from their first Final Four since 1980, it’s difficult not to consider the win over Texas a big step. Coach Chris Beard has been a longtime nemesis, dating to his tenure as the boss at Little Rock when the Trojans caught fire and knocked off the Boilermakers in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in 2016. He did the same thing 2 years later at Texas Tech, when the Red Raiders nuked Purdue in the Sweet 16.
Why is Beard such a problem? A) He’s a good coach and has good, well-prepared teams. And B) his style, utilizing long, athletic players who play an aggressive, attacking defensive style, can be challenging for the Boilermakers. But Purdue punched its ticket to the Sweet 16 by punching back against the Longhorns.
The Boilermakers weren’t going to be bullied.
Instead, Williams took the physicality to the Longhorns, using his own strength and athleticism to find high-percentage shots in the paint. Gillis looked like he was seeking out opponents to pop before grabbing rebounds. Ivey was looking for his chances and found them, particularly with darts to the hoop and big 3-pointers in the second half.
And Morton was there to lock down Carr, sticking with him about every step up and down the court. Morton forced Carr into left turns, preventing him from going to his right where he’s a more prolific scorer. He played like Boilermaker fans expect Boilermakers to play: Gritty, tough, hard-nosed, smart basketball.
It’s hard not to think the Boilermakers are burying their failures of the past while they try to march through the NCAA Tournament field. They avoided the first-round upset, which had been a problem vs. Little Rock and North Texas (last season) and others. And they toppled Beard.
Next, Purdue will get Cinderella Saint Peter’s in the East Region semifinals. After that, it’s either 4 seed UCLA or 8 North Carolina, in a region that opened wide following the ousters of top-seeded Baylor and No. 2-seed Kentucky this weekend. Earlier in the season, the Boilermakers didn’t adjust well to being a frontrunner, but they might not be able to avoid it now. How it deals with that might determine whether Purdue makes the long-awaited Final Four.