How former Purdue basketball players celebrated their Final Four berth

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Ecstasy. satisfaction. Pure joy. For former Purdue players, Sunday's Final Four win over Tennessee stirred up many emotions, in some cases simultaneously.

From an apartment in Cabo San Lucas to a rushed trip to the airport in Detroit to a break from cleaning out the garage at home, here are the stories of how former Purdue players from different eras saw the Boilermakers reach the Final Four for the first time in 44 years.

Drake Morris (Class of '81)

Drake Morris, a 1977 East Chicago Washington basketball runner-up, watched Sunday's game in Hammond. Morris is one of the few Boilermakers who understands what it's like to play in the Final Four.

Morris played on the 1980 team, seeded sixth, that beat second-seeded Indiana in the Sweet 16 and fourth-seeded Duke in the Elite Eight of the Mideast Regional in Lexington, Kentucky, to reach the Final Four, held at Market Square in Indianapolis.

“It brought back a lot of memories,” Morris said of watching Purdue beat Tennessee 72-66. “It gave me shivers up and down my spine. I'm very happy for the whole team, for the whole group of coaches. Matt Painter has taken a lot of criticism over the years, but once they got past the first round, and then the second round, it was no surprise to me that they were in this Position. I picked them to be in the tournament against UConn.

Morris, who was inducted into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame last year, said he had a “good feeling Purdue is going to handle (Tennessee)” after its win over the Volunteers earlier in the season.

“Knecht's kid was a handful,” Morris said of Tennessee's Dalton Knecht, who scored 37 points. “He had a hot hand and made some tough shots. There were a few times I wished Purdue would slow down a little bit and get the ball to (Zach) Eddy. Then he put himself in position and they fed him. He got a lot better with his work down low.”

Morris said he doesn't want to compare his team to Bordeaux's current squad. “It's a completely new and different era,” he said. Morris and teammate Keith Edmondson each scored a team-high 20 points in Purdue's regional semifinal win over IU and Morris went 8-for-9 from the free throw line in Eighth's win over Duke (Joe Barry Carroll went for 26 points). .

“For me, that was the Final Four right there,” Morris said. “That was a tough area to be in. I was glad we came out and beat Indiana and Duke beat Kentucky. We beat Duke to get there, and it was a really great experience. This is going to be a great experience for these guys. It's a tough hill to climb to get there.”

Maurice Bordeaux's team couldn't get past the next step, losing 67-62 to eighth-seeded UCLA coached by Larry Brown. The Bruins underperformed and battled through the regular season 17-9 before going on fire in the tournament, knocking off No. 1 DePaul and No. 10 Ohio State before finally falling 59-54 to Louisville in the national championship.

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More than four decades later, Morris believes this team can go further than they did. But even if that's not the case, making it to the Final Four is a feat not many have achieved.

“I'm very proud of them,” he said. “This is something that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.”

Roy Hairston (Class of '96)

Roy Hairston was cleaning out his garage on Sunday. We call it reorganization. Spring cleaning.

“I told my wife and daughter I was going to take a break and watch the game,” said Hairston, a physical education teacher at Warren Central. “I saw it myself.”

Hairston, who played on the 1994-95 and 1995-96 teams, counts former teammate and current Purdue assistant Brandon Brantley among his best friends. Hairston and Brantley were starters on the 1995-96 team that went 26-6 and earned the top seed in the West Region but was bounced in the second round of the NCAA Tournament by Shandon Anderson and Georgia. The previous year, the Boilermakers were seeded third and lost in the second round to Memphis.

Hairston was in a group text during the game with some of his former teammates.

“It was intense,” he said. “Watching the guys fight back and forth, and then seeing them do something most of us have never accomplished…I was just happy. I don't think there was a decompression. Brandon was one of my best friends, and I was so happy for him. Matt Painter wore this uniform and played. PJ Thompson wore this uniform and played. “I was so happy for them all.”

Hairston was around the team just days before they left for Detroit to play Gonzaga. He was amazed by how down to earth everyone seemed.

“It was good to see that,” he said. “It was like they were preparing for a normal Big Ten game.”

Even when Tennessee pulled within one point, 59-58, on the final media timeout with 4 minutes remaining, Hairston said he felt good about Eddie being 7-4 “the ultimate equalizer.”

“I didn't see anyone lower their head or get nervous,” Hairston said. “If it had been the first round and it had been that close, it might have been different. But they were prepared. It was like, 'We're here.' Instead of giving in to pressure, they responded. Fletcher (Lauer's 3-pointer) was big. I was really impressed with Braden Smith. Those guys “A year older. They're not freshmen anymore and you can tell. Lance (Jones) takes a lot of that pressure off as well.”

Eventually, Hairston finished cleaning out the garage. He did it with a smile on his face.

“Probably the happiest person in this building was Gene Keady,” Hairston said of his former coach. “I don't think I've ever seen him smile more. He looked like the happiest person on earth.”

Cuonzo Martin (Class of '95)

Cuonzo Martin was in the building. He got a great seat at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit to see his Boilermakers clinch their first Final Four appearance in 44 years.

But he couldn't stay. He had a flight to catch.

“I was there every step of the way,” Martin said with a laugh. “But we had a 6 p.m. flight to Springfield, Missouri.”

It was a trip that Martin absolutely could not miss. He was introduced Monday as Missouri State's basketball coach. His wife, Roberta, and daughter, Addison, joined him on the trip to the airport. Martin's son, Chase, is a senior prospect for the Boilermakers.

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“I was sitting right behind Matt Waddell,” Martin said. “I told him I didn't want to cause controversy by leaving. It was about six minutes later and we had to leave.

There was a part of Martin that was actually relieved not to be there in person to watch the final six minutes, saying: “I felt like I could breathe.” On the way out of the match, the Martins were able to hear the commentators and remain calm. In the car on the way to the airport, Roberta found the radio station in the car and asked to stop broadcasting on her phone.

“It was a little scary,” Martin said. “I'm trying to drive, listen and watch as Purdue goes to the Final Four.”

Martin compared the experience to training for a game. Perhaps more anxious. Martin, a star player at Purdue from 1991-95, coached with Keady and Painter for eight years before being hired at Missouri State for the first time in 2008. He also coached at Tennessee, Cal and Missouri before being hired again at Missouri State. last week.

His 1994 team played in the Elite Eight as the top seed in the Southeast Region. That team, led by Glenn Robinson and Martin Waddell, beat Kansas 83-78 in a memorable Sweet 16 game in Knoxville, Tennessee, before losing to fourth-seeded Duke, 69-60. Duke went on to play in the national championship, losing to Arkansas.

On the plane, Martin, his wife and his daughter were finally able to relax.

“I was just a very happy father,” he said. “I really feel with all the success Matt has had, they're going to take another step now. I think they're always going to be in the Elite Eight and Final Four field every year. But just knowing the types of people that are in the program, you root for them. I know how hard it is to get there (to the final) 4) Maybe an injury here or there prevents you from doing so. Matt did a great job and I'm so glad he got to have this experience.

DJ Bird (Class of '13)

DJ Byrd will be there in person to watch Purdue in the Final Four this weekend in Glendale, Ariz. But at Easter, he was with his wife's family in Fishers.

“We watched every minute of it,” Bird said. “Seeing the joy of everyone there was so great. Coach Painter has deserved this for a long time, so to see him finally get to the national stage was great. And the staff, which includes former players and a lot of former players in the building… it made me really happy.” It couldn't have happened to a better coach and someone who did it the right way.

A former North Montgomery standout, Bird played in three NCAA tournaments with Purdue in 2010, '11 and '12. The 2010 team reached the Sweet 16, while the next two teams lost in the second round. After coaching at the high school level, Byrd joined Painter's staff as a graduate assistant and was on the bench when Purdue came as close as possible to reaching the Final Four without doing so in an 80-75 loss to Virginia in the Elite Eight.

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“I felt good for those true Purdue fans who have followed it for so many years,” Bird said. “They've felt the ups and downs of past NCAA tournaments. It probably means a lot to us who have had some unfortunate endings, so to see it all come together makes it special.”

Bird jokes that he's currently “in the portal.” He joined the staff at Mercer in 2019 as director of basketball operations when former Purdue assistant Greg Gary was hired and has been on staff as an assistant for the past four years. Gary's contract was not renewed after posting an 81-79 record in five seasons.

“I still have a lot of practice,” Bird said.

He looks forward to congratulating the painter and staff in person in Arizona.

“I'm so happy to see Coach Painter at the top on the national stage,” he said. “The culture there is real.”

Greg Everett (Class of '84)

In the middle of the afternoon in an apartment in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, shouts of “boil the water” could be heard. It turns out there was a lot of screaming.

“We got a call from the front desk that it was getting too loud,” Greg Everett said. “It was like, 'OK.' Too bad.'”

The noise complaint — a second complaint filed later about the Everetts' screaming at the pool — was worth it. Evert, who played at Purdue from 1980-84 for Keedy, said he was nervous watching the game. His wife, Julie, is also a graduate of Purdue University. They watched the match at his brother-in-law's apartment.

“I wanted it so bad for these guys,” he said. “It was nerve-racking, and then it was a great feeling. It's definitely been a long time coming to go back to when Big Dog (Robinson) was injured and couldn't play. You just can't believe it's over. It's been a long time coming “

Eifert played on the 1982–83 team that reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament, losing to Arkansas. The Boilermakers were 22-7 and the third seed the following year but lost by 18 points to Memphis in the second round.

“It doesn't change my opinion of Matt (the painter),” Everett said. “He's got key players on this team who are going to be key for a lot of teams. You don't see a lot of people coming through the portal, and that's a testament to what he's created there.”

Everett's son Grady, now an assistant to former Purdue assistant Micah Shrewsberry at Notre Dame, also played at Purdue. Eifert texted painter and Purdue assistant Elliot Bloom 30 minutes after the game to say congratulations. “They both texted right away,” Everett said. “That says a lot.”

The family has been visiting Cabo for about 15 years, Everett said. They are scheduled to leave on Sunday. He's considering a stop in Arizona.

“I'm discussing it,” he said. “On the one hand, I don't want to jinx it. On the other hand, it doesn't happen very often.”

Contact Star reporter Kyle Niedenreib at (317) 444-6649.

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