Purdue faces Auburn for Cancun Challenge title
The 17th-ranked Purdue basketball team will attempt to win its third November tournament in the past eight seasons Wednesday night when the Boilermakers face Auburn in the Cancun Challenge championship game.
And if coach Matt Painter's team wins, the Boilermakers will have beaten a Southeastern Conference opponent in each of those three event's title games.
Purdue (3-1) defeated Tennessee in the 2009 Paradise Jam in The Virgin Islands when current Auburn coach Bruce Pearl was coaching the Volunteers. The 2015 Boilermakers defeated Florida in the Hall of Fame Tipoff title game in Connecticut.
Now, Painter will attempt to get the best of Pearl again after Auburn defeated Texas Tech 67-65 in Tuesday's first semifinal, and Purdue pulled away from Utah State, 85-64.
Boilermaker center Isaac Haas scored a career-best 26 points against Utah State, guard Dakota Mathias added a career-best 25 on 9 of 10 field goal shooting and power forward Caleb Swanigan had 15 points.
“Dakota had a great night, and Isaac was just as good on the interior, taking his time,” Painter said. “A lot of people who have some size aren't used to doubling. When they go and double, it's tough for them when they get there late. Trouble happens.
“Against Utah State, Isaac did a good job of waiting and taking his time. I thought Caleb did, too. Both of those guys really had a good night Tuesday.”
Painter is hoping to get just as much perimeter help from Mathias against Auburn as he got against Utah State.
“The more you can make other teams pay — getting them in foul trouble, playing against their backup bigs — and then being able to step up and hit some 3s will really help us set our defense more,” Painter said.
“The more consistent we can get on the offensive end, they constantly are going to be going against a set defense, which is what you want.”
Mathias said Haas and Swanigan help create open shots for Purdue's perimeter players.
“They are so good when they get doubled or triple-teamed, being able to pass out of it,” Mathias said. “I think especially Isaac has improved.
“When teams double our big men, we've got guys on the perimeter who can move around the horn and make shots. That is tough to guard.”
Auburn improved to 4-0 for the second time in the last 10 years. In Mustapha Heron and Danjel Purifoy, the Tigers had two freshmen reach double figures in each of their first four games for the first time since Scott Pohlmam during the 1997-98 season.
“Beating Texas Tech was a great win for our program and a great win for our kids,” Pearl said. “Texas Tech is an NCAA caliber team. I thought we stopped guarding in the second half, but hey, I would rather learn and win than learn and lose.”
While Pearl starts three freshman and two sophomores, he is happy to have fifth-year graduate student point guard Ronnie Johnson, who was Purdue's starting point guard as a freshman and sophomore before transferring to Houston to play for Kelvin Sampson.
After earning an undergraduate degree in the spring, Johnson opted to move again — this time to Auburn.