How former Purdue basketball players celebrated Final Four berth


Elation. Relief. Pure joy. For former Purdue players, the emotions of Sunday’s Final Four-clinching victory over Tennessee elicited many emotions, in some cases all at once.

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

Drake Morris (Class of ’81)

Drake Morris, the Mr. Basketball runner-up out of East Chicago Washington in 1977, watched Sunday’s game in Hammond. Morris is one of the few living Boilermakers who understands how it feels to play in a Final Four.

Morris played on the 1980 team, seeded sixth, that took out second-seeded Indiana in the Sweet 16 and fourth-seeded Duke in the Elite Eight in the Mideast Regional in Lexington, Ky., to reach the Final Four, which was played at Market Square Arena in Indianapolis.

“It brought back a lot of memories,” Morris said of watching Purdue’s 72-66 win over Tennessee. “I got chills up and down my spine. I’m very happy for the whole team, the whole group of coaches. Matt Painter got a lot of flak over the years but once they got past that first round, then the second round, it was no surprise to me they were in this position. I picked them to be in the championship against UConn.”

Morris, who was inducted into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame last year, said he had a “good feeling Purdue would handle (Tennessee)” after defeating the Volunteers early in the season.

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

Morris said he did not want to compare his team to this current Purdue team. “It’s whole new, different era,” he said. Morris and teammate Keith Edmondson both 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 the Eight Eight win over Duke (Joe Barry Carroll went for 26 points).

“To me, that was the Final Four right there,” Morris said. “That was a tough region to be in. I was glad we came out and beat Indiana and Duke beat Kentucky. We beat Duke to get there, which was a really great experience. And this is going to be a great experience for those guys. It’s a tough hill to climb to get there.”

Morris’ Purdue team was not able to get past the next step, losing 67-62 to an eighth-seeded UCLA team coached by Larry Brown. The Bruins had underachieved and scuffled to a 17-9 regular season before catching 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.

More than four decades later, Morris thinks this team can get further than his did. But even if not, getting to the Final Four is an accomplishment not many achieve.

“I’m very proud of them,” he said. “This is something that is going to go along with them for the rest of their lives.”

Roy Hairston (Class of ’96)

Roy Hairston was cleaning his garage on Sunday. Call it a reorganization. A 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 watched it by 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 a No. 1 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 battle back and forth, then seeing them do something most of us never accomplished … I was just happy. I don’t think there was a pressure release. Brandon being one of my best friends, I was super happy for him. Matt Painter put on that uniform and played. P.J. Thompson put on that uniform and played. I was super happy for all of them.”

Hairston was around the team a few days before they left for Detroit to play Gonzaga. He was struck by how businesslike everyone seemed to be.

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

Even as Tennessee pulled within a point, 59-58, at the final media timeout with 4 minutes remaining, Hairston said he felt good about the 7-4 Edey being “the ultimate equalizer.”

“I didn’t see anyone putting their head down or tensing up,” Hairston said. “If it was round one and it was that close, maybe it’s different. But they were ready. It was like, ‘We’re here.’ As opposed to giving into the pressure, they responded. Fletcher (Loyer’s 3-pointer) was big. I was really impressed with Braden Smith. Those guys are a year older. They aren’t freshmen anymore and you can tell. Lance (Jones) relieves a lot of that pressure, too.”

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

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

Cuonzo Martin (Class of ’95)

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

But he could not stay. He had a flight to catch.

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

It was a flight Martin absolutely could not miss. He was introduced Monday as the basketball coach at Missouri State. His wife, Roberta, and daughter, Addison, joined him in a dash to the airport. Martin’s son, Chase, is a senior walk-on for the Boilermakers.

“I was sitting right behind Matt Waddell,” Martin said. “I told him I didn’t want to make a scene by leaving. It was about the six-minute mark, though, and we had to leave.”

There was a part of Martin that was actually relieved not to be there in person to see the final six minutes, saying, “I felt like I could breathe.” On the way out of the game, the Martins could hear the commentators and keep up with the game. In the car on the way to the airport, Roberta found the radio station in the car and had the broadcast pulled up on her phone.

“It was a little scary situation,” Martin said. “Trying to drive and listen and watch while Purdue is going to the Final Four.”

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

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

On the flight, Martin and his wife and daughter could finally relax.

“I was just an overjoyed dad,” he said. “I really feel with all the success Matt has had, they’ll take another step now. I think they’ll consistently be in the Elite Eight and Final Four ballpark every year. But just knowing the types of guys they have in the program, you are rooting for them. I know how hard it is to get there (to the Final Four). Maybe an injury here or there keeps you from it. Matt has done a phenomenal job and I’m so happy for him to have this experience.”

D.J. Byrd (Class of ’13)

D.J. Byrd will be there in person to see Purdue in the Final Four this weekend in Glendale, Ariz. But on Easter Sunday, he was with his wife’s family in Fishers.

“We watched every minute of it,” Byrd said. “To see the joy of everybody there was so cool. Coach Painter deserved this for a long time, so to see him finally get there on a national stage was awesome. And the staff, which includes of former players and a lot of former players in the building … it just made me really happy. It couldn’t happen to a better coach and a guy who has done it the right way.”

Byrd, a former North Montgomery standout, 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 it in an 80-75 loss to Virginia in the Elite Eight.

“You felt good for those true Purdue fans who followed it for many, many years,” Byrd said. “They felt the ups and downs of previous NCAA tournaments. It probably means a little more to us who lived through some unfortunate endings, so it makes it special to see it all come together.”

Byrd jokes he is 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 was on staff as an assistant the past four years. Gary’s contract was not renewed after posting an 81-79 record in five seasons.

“I have a lot of coaching left in me,” Byrd said.

He is looking forward to congratulating Painter and the staff in person in Arizona.

“I’m so happy to see coach Painter on top on a national stage,” he said. “The culture there is real.”

Greg Eifert (Class of ’84)

In the middle of the afternoon at a condo in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, shouts of “Boiler Up” were heard. A little too much shouting, it turned out.

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

The noise complaint — a second complaint was later lodged on the Eifert family shouting in the swimming pool — was worth it. Eifert, who played from 1980-84 at Purdue for Keady, said he was nervous watching the game. His wife, Julie, is also a Purdue graduate. They watched the game in his brother-in-law’s condo.

“I wanted it so badly for those guys,” he said. “It was nerve-racking, and then a great feeling. Definitely long overdue going back to when Big Dog (Robinson) got hurt and could hardly play. You just couldn’t believe it was 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 seeded third the following year but lost by 18 points to Memphis in the second round.

“It doesn’t change my opinion of Matt (Painter),” Eifert said. “He has role players on that team that would be starting for a lot of teams. You don’t see many guys going in the portal, which is a testament to what he’s created there.”

Eifert’s son Grady, now an assistant for 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 back right away,” Eifert said. “That says a lot.”

Eifert said the family has been visiting Cabo for about the past 15 years. They are scheduled to leave on Sunday. He is thinking of making a pit stop in Arizona.

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

Call Star reporter Kyle Neddenriep at (317) 444-6649.

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