"That was the silver lining of the game for us, is that we wouldn't have won this game last year," said Purdue coach Matt Painter. "Our guys stepped up and made some plays late."
They got some breaks, too. Trailing by one, Northern Kentucky got two looks in front of the hoop. Tyler White's floater bounced out, then Jake Giesler's put-back clanked off the rim. The final horn was followed by a collective deep breath from the fans at Mackey Arena.
The Norse had a 76-72 lead in the game's final minute, but couldn't secure the victory. A three-pointer with 50 seconds remaining from Errick Peck made his Purdue debut one to remember. At the time, it brought the Boilermakers back within a point. The Cornell transfer finished with 11 points and nine boards, but that all seems insignificant compared to his clutch shot.
The momentum was on Purdue's side after that. The task of hitting two free throws seemed monumental for Northern Kentucky's Jordan Jackson, who was perfect at the charity stripe in the game's first 39 minutes. On his two most important free throws of the night, the results were clank and clank.
Unlike last year, Purdue showed poise in the face of adversity. Northern Kentucky is a small school playing its second year of Division I basketball, and it gave Purdue all it could handle.
The game can be detailed in two segments: the first 39 minutes, where Northern Kentucky gave the Boilermakers every punch they have; and the 40th minute, where the Norse unraveled on the big stage while Purdue proved it can close out a win.
There was a difference in the Boilermakers' huddle, where this year, a more confident team came together in the midst of a challenge.
"At the end of the game, we didn't have guys hollering at each other, cussing each other out," senior guard Terone Johnson said. "We had a lot of that last year, guys pointing the finger. This time, we were picking each other up."
The difference-maker for the Boilermakers was sophomore guard Ronnie Johnson, who made up for a sloppy night running the court with 18 points on 7-of-11 from the field. None of those points were bigger than the two free throws he hit with 13 seconds remaining to put Purdue ahead for the final time.
Standing at the line, Johnson was oozing confidence. He came through to give his team a win.
"I thought there at the end, it showed a lot about Ronnie and what he has learned in end-of-game situations," said Terone of his younger brother.
When the game ended, one team was jubilant while the other was left in disbelief. The Norse played with admiral passion from start to finish, something Painter alluded to in his brutally honest postgame comments.
"I thought they deserved to win, just out of being quicker to the basketball and having more energy than us," Painter said. "… Maybe we can learn from them, because they were hungrier."
However, the game decided by the Boilermakers showing more poise and confidence than their foe. In the final minute, Purdue took its challenge head on.
Now, the Boilermakers will aim to correct their mistakes, and there were many. Still, this thrilling victory made a statement.
"It's a transformation from last year," Johnson said. "But we've got a lot of work to do."
-- Freshman guard Kendall Stephens started in his first game at Purdue, posting six points in 16 minutes. His first collegiate basket came on a 30-footer.
-- Purdue struggled from the field in the first half, hitting on just 11 of 30 shots. However, they bounced back in the second half to hit 57.1 percent, including 4-of-7 from beyond the arc.
-- Purdue will welcome back A.J. Hammons from suspension. It showed the sophomore center's presence is desperately needed on the court. Northern Kentucky coach Dave Bezold agreed. "I don't know if we could've handled that rascal," he said. "It would've been a different game, because he's really good."
-- Before Peck's last-minute three-pointer, Bezold told his team to defend the perimeter. It didn't work. "Do not give up a three," Bezold said. "We'll give up a two. They gave up a three."
-- Painter said shaking hands with the Norse players was hard to do, given how closely-contested the game was. It was a gut-wrenching loss for Northern Kentucky. "I felt bad for their guys, shaking their hands," Painter said. "Who feels bad after a win? I felt bad for them."
-- This Northern Kentucky team may be a force this season. It hit 13 of 26 from beyond the arc and created problems for Purdue on defense. It's a team that plays dangerously. "I just thought they were tough and competed," Painter said. "I was really impressed."
-- The Boilermakers return to action on Wednesday when they host Central Connecticut at Mackey Arena.