WEST LAFAYETTE – Jon McKeeman got the honors.
The Boiler senior who rarely played got his moment in Tuesday night’s final nine seconds that wrapped up Purdue’s record 23rd Big Ten championship.
Specifically, it was an 86-75 win over Indiana.
Fitting that McKeeman had the ball at the end?
You’d better believe it.
McKeeman, a former Carroll standout, had put in the time, and if it didn’t generate much action (just 27 minutes in 15 games this season), well, that was never the point.
Winning was — on and off the court.
“He’s the only one who was here in last place and now he’s in first place,” coach Matt Painter said. “He doesn’t play for us, but he does everything right. School is important. Education is important. He works on his game. He’s always in the gym working to get better, but deep down he knows he won’t get in.”
In four years, McKeeman has scored 10 total points and grabbed five total rebounds over 25 games and 50 minutes. That includes missing all of last season with an injury.
Again, that’s not the point. McKeeman, once a walk-on, got a scholarship this season because he did the little things that matter far from the spotlight.
“He’s been a great piece to our puzzle,” Painter said. “You have to get people who are about winning. He’s about winning. He has a lot of substance. That’s what you need.”
And then …
“Good guys like him are contagious.”
McKeeman bleeds Gold and Black. He’s the eighth member of his family to attend Purdue. He’s already graduated and is working on his master’s in health and kinesiology.
The spotlight finally found him in Tuesday night’s post-game Senior Night recognition. He addressed the Mackey Arena crowd after a highlight video was played on the scoreboard.
“I think that was the comprehensive video of every minute I played,” he said with a smile and the crowd cheered. “So many people made this possible. It’s amazing to win a Big Ten title on Senior Night.
“I want to thank my girl friend, Janae’ Moffitt. She’s the two-time Big Ten champ in the high jump."
He paused for another smile.
"We don’t play one on one. I’m afraid I’ll get dunked on.
“I want to thank Coach Painter for giving me the opportunity of a lifetime. It’s been an amazing ride. My teammates always have my back. It’s been fantastic. We did it.
“Three years ago we were last in the Big Ten. Now we made it all the way to the Big Ten championship.”
The No. 16 Boilers are 24-6 overall. More importantly, they are 13-4 in the Big Ten, which clinches at least a tie for the championship (Wisconsin is 11-5), and earns them the No. 1 seed in next week’s Big Ten tourney in Washington D.C.
They did it in the most satisfying fashion possible — beating their biggest rival on their home court. It had been two years since IU had played at Mackey, and in anticipation students pitched tents the night before outside the arena to ensure first-in-line status and full Paint Crew seating options.
“To be able to knock off your rival on your home court is unbelievable,” junior forward Vincent Edwards said. “It’s been a while since they came here. We knew Mackey would be special. The fans were excited.”
In the aftermath, confetti rained on Keady Court, blasted from the Mackey Arena rafters when the game clock hit zero. Queen sang “We Are the Champions.” Players cut down nets.
Three years ago the Boilers finished 5-13 in the Big Ten, good for last place. Many wanted Painter gone despite the fact he’d won three conference coach of the year awards.
“We were not in a good spot three to four years ago,” Painter said. “I got the emails, probably from a lot of people here. I read them Maybe I’m a fool, but I read them.
“The one thing we wanted to do was get more skill and good decision makers, but we also wanted to get people who were about winning.”
That included likely Big Ten MVP Caleb Swanigan. He recorded his 24th double double of the season with 21 points and 10 rebounds against IU.
“It helps to add Biggie,” Painter said. “He’s a pretty important piece. I felt the junior class, with P.J. (Thompson) and Dakota (Mathias) and Vince and Isaac (Haas) set the table for us. They did things the right way. They wanted to be coached … most of the time. They got to play immediately, and we built from there.”
This is Purdue’s second Big Ten title in the last eight seasons, and it broke an overall tie with IU, which has 22 conference championships.
“This means a lot to our program,” Painter said. “There is a lot of tradition in our state. There is a lot of tradition at Indiana. We beat a good team.”
After a back-and-forth first 10 minutes, Mathias helped shoot Purdue to a 15-point lead before IU closed within seven at halftime. The Hoosiers (16-14, 6-11) got within five early in the second half before the Boilers pulled away.
IU coach Tom Crean didn’t criticize the officiating, but he did wonder about the free throw disparity. The Hoosiers were 13-for-17 from the line to Purdue’s 28-for-33.
“We could never match anywhere close what was happening at the foul line,” he said.
Then Crean acknowledged Purdue’s accomplishment.
“I’m happy for Matt for winning a championship. He’s a great coach and he runs a great program.”
Painter wished he could share that happiness.
In four days Purdue ends its season at Northwestern, and a victory might be necessary to earn the outright Big Ten title, depending on what No. 21 Wisconsin does against Iowa on Thursday night. A victory certainly would help for NCAA tourney seeding
“No, I don’t enjoy it,” Painter said. “We have a lot of basketball left to play.”
This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Pete DiPrimio at firstname.lastname@example.org.