MILWAUKEE, Wis. — Vincent Edwards had had enough — of the first-round Purdue losing, of his mistakes and lack of aggression that had been so costly in the past.
He had the game to make a postseason difference and finally … finally … he delivered.
The result — the Boilers (26-7) are moving on.
Edwards was a second-half wonder Thursday night, scoring and rebounding and leading a charge that got No. 4 seed Purdue into the NCAA tourney second round for the first time since 2012 courtesy of a 80-70 victory over 13th-seed Vermont.
Edwards played all of the final 20 minutes and totaled 15 points, three rebounds, one assist and zero turnovers. That was a big turnaround from the six points, two rebounds and three turnovers he had in the first half.
“The second half,” Purdue guard P.J. Thompson said, “he was special.”
It couldn’t have come at a better time.
“The last two years I was sitting here crying,” Edwards said from a post-game Bradley Center locker room. “It feels great to finally get past that first round. It’s been something that’s been haunting this group the last two years. Now we’ve got to ready for the next one.”
That would be fifth-seed Iowa State (24-10), the Big 12 tourney champ that took out Nevada Thursday night. They will meet on Saturday.
Edwards’ first-half struggles mirrored that of his teammates. They led just 37-36 at halftime and doubt — remnants of the late blown leads in the last two NCAA tourney appearances — could have ruined everything.
Edwards wouldn’t let it. First, he did some soul searching.
“At halftime, I was frustrated. I was trying to get my thoughts together. When we came back out for the second half, I went to the bench with a towel over my head. I had to take a couple of deep breaths and say, ‘Remember, I’ve been here before. I know what to do and know what it takes.
“Those (mistakes) I made the first half, before the tournament I had promised myself I wouldn’t do them again, and then I did them.”
Teammates helped pump him up.
“He was down on himself,” Thompson said. “We told him, he’s been doing this since he was a little kid. Keep your head up. Make them guard you. When he was being aggressive, no one could guard him.”
Added Edwards: “The guys said, ‘You’re a player. We need you. Just play.’
“Coach (Matt) Painter said to have fun. I took it upon myself to regroup.”
It worked, but it wasn’t without drama. Boiler center Isaac Haas has an amazing ability to turn six-inch shots into unwanted adventure. Twice in the second half he missed from that range. Twice Vermont got the rebound and fired a length-of-the-court pass for layups.
That’s an eight-point turnaround Purdue couldn’t afford, but reflected a game in which, for 36 minutes, the Boilers pushed for separation and got … cliffhanger.
Vermont benefited from friendly rims, the inspiration of an underdog and the confidence from a 21-game winning streak. It hadn’t lost since before Christmas, and showed no sign of ruining that any time soon.
“They’re one of the best teams we’ve faced all year,” Painter said.
With 11 minutes left, the Catamounts (29-6) were dangerously close at 54-52.
With 3:25 left, they were within five.
The Boilers had seen this before under NCAA tourney play, and buckled.
Not this time.
Painter had done everything he could to prepare them for this, including a preseason closed scrimmage with press-happy West Virginia. Purdue won the Big Ten in part because of its ability to close out games, especially on the road.
It paid off. Freshman guard Carsen Edwards hit a three-pointer to push the lead to eight. Thompson hit another for an 11-point advantage. Carsen Edwards added two free throws.
The first-round defeats were ancient history.
“We finally got the monkey off our backs,” Thompson said, “so we’re feeling pretty good.”
Added Carsen Edwards: “I know there was pressure, but to be able to get past this, it’s a sense of relief.”
Relief comes with resolve.
“It feels really good,” Haas said, “but there’s still work to be done. We’re not here to win just one game. We want to keep moving on.”
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.