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Purdue beat NC State to reach the national championship game despite Braden Smith's “terrible” game.

Purdue beat NC State to reach the national championship game despite Braden Smith's “terrible” game.

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Braden Smith went from sarcastically slow clapping on the floor to mumbling in the arena tunnel to sitting on a folding chair and explaining why he was so bad in a Final Four game. “Terrible,” in fact, was the exact phrase from Purdue’s sophomore point guard. This self-sacrifice continued for a while. Eventually, the locker room emptied, and Smith was alone in his stall when his head coach walked by.

Matt Painter slapped him on the back hard three times.

“Well done, man,” the Boilermakers coach announced before disappearing into the back.

“look at this?” Smith said after the painter left. “That's how lucky I am. I played like crap and he left me for 40 minutes. He trusts me. Not everyone can say that.”

The good news, as everyone correctly pointed out, was the 63-50 win over NC State and a berth in the national championship game that came with it, all while the engine was running without oil for a few hours. The less acknowledged issue is that it happened at all. One of the Big Ten point guards seemed, for a while, to have forgotten how to play point guard. Considering the monsters under the bed of this particular program, the idea that a problem that was solved suddenly became a problem again is no small feat.

When Connecticut jumps in the tank on Monday and the water rises to Purdue's chin, five turnovers, 1-of-9 shooting and increased passivity on the offensive end by Smith is a very good way to ensure Connecticut wins the national title. These aren't the hottest shots. However, it is a reality. The pressure point that will continue through the weekend; Smith is now shooting 39.2 percent since the start of March, and five of his 12 single-digit scoring games on the season have come in the postseason.

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Even if Bordeaux is not worried, there are thousands here and elsewhere who will be worried about Bordeaux. “I'm looking forward to Monday, because I know Braden is on edge and Braden is really good,” director of player development P.J. Thompson said.

The official box score actually shows Smith scoring 40 minutes, but that's not entirely accurate: After drawing a foul with 1.9 seconds left in the first half, just to disrupt NC State's push for a final shot, he headed to the bench. He fell into his seat as if he had swallowed a lump of ash. He put his head in his hands. He rubbed his temples. He didn't look good.

Before Smith joined, Thompson — a former point guard at Purdue — told him there was no other point guard he would rather run the show. It is this relationship between them that Thompson thought he would receive a request for film clips from Smith shortly after the team had a homecoming meal at the hotel in downtown Phoenix, and it is their relationship where Thompson can calculate the right amount of gravity or lightness. That would pull Smith out of the vortex.

On Saturday evening, with moments remaining at halftime, he turned right and bowed.

I'm not worried“He said to Smith. It's six o'clock and you're playing the worst game of your life.

It was a sort of triage for a player who might be harder on himself than anyone else in the room, and who made uncharacteristically trivial mistakes like a repeated foul in the first half. No tactical adjustments. There is no comprehensive fix for Xs-and-Os. It was all stress or anxiety, in Pinter's estimation. So Purdue needed to get Braden Smith's brain to stop beating itself up.


Braden Smith was at a loss to explain his struggles, but the Boilermakers will march on into Monday night anyway. (Grace Hollers/USA Today)

Strong face, is what forward Mason Gillis told him, over and over again, conjuring up the team's code words for dealing with potential tax and bargaining situations. (If any team has that kind of reference point, it's this one.)

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“That’s our job — to pick him up,” Gillis said. “Remind him what he did for us. Remind him how we got him. Keep that strong face. We'll be fine.”

The fine is relative. Smith did not commit another turnover after the break. He also tallied one of his six assists and didn't take a shot until a 3-pointer with three and a half minutes left, pushing the lead to 18 and causing an N.C. State timeout. A moment of triumph that Smith greeted with a little self-loathing.

Having already dropped back to the defensive end, he turned to face the crowd. He pursed his lips. He didn't stare at anyone in particular. He gave himself a few very long, tired applause before Gillis arrived to drag him back into the assembly. “I'm a very self-critical person,” Smith said. “I hold myself to the highest possible expectations. It feels like we're in the national championship, and I'm a little disappointed in myself.”

“The only way is through,” Painter noted after the match. Leave Smith there to figure it out as a gesture of trust. Three steals and eight rebounds mean nothing when it seems like every other part of your game is falling apart. “I wish I had an answer for you,” Smith said in the locker room, as confused as everyone else.

A moot point, though, as long as it doesn't happen again. “When he's negative, and he's not shooting with rhythm, it hurts our offense,” Thompson said. “And he knows that. But that's the point of the movie. I got a chance to make it right and play for a national championship.”

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Bordeaux was not in favor of the idea of ​​a repeat on Saturday. To explain what his roommate looks like when he's angry, Boilermakers guard Fletcher Lower pointed to December. Smith scored two points in the win over Iowa State. He wasn't very pleased with this. He then scored a combined 53 points in games against Alabama and Arizona.

Lauer understands as well as anyone how Smith can overcome poor performance. He likes to think he can say the right things to unseat his point guard. He kept reminding Smith that he was going to play in the national championship after all. He is as concerned as anyone else about how successful his message is.

“If he listens to me, we'll be able to see him on Monday,” Lauer said. “Because he will play better.”

(Top image: Jamie Squire/Getty Images)