ALBUQUERQUE, N.M., March 14 -- Sometimes the closer one is to the impossible, the bigger the heartbreak afterward. That's all the Western Carolina Catamounts were left with Thursday night after coming closest to wearing the biggest glass slipper of anybody in the history of the NCAA Tournament. Brandon Brantley threw down a dunk with 67 seconds remaining, allowing Purdue to avoid becoming the first top seed in history to go down in the first round, escaping with a 73-71 victory over the Catamounts. 'I think our guys played their hearts out tonight,' Western Carolina coach Phil Hopkins, fighting back tears, said after the game. 'We didn't come here to keep it close.' After Purdue's Brad Miller missed the front end of a one-and-one situation with 11.6 seconds left, Western Carolina guard Joel Fleming tracked down the loose ball and missed on a three-pointer from the top of the key. Joe Stafford got the rebound but missed a 13-footer as time expired. Since the NCAA field was expanded to 64 teams in 1985, no No. 16 seed ever has reached the second round. 'Somebody's going to get beat when they're a first seed facing a 16 seed, and I just didn't want to be the one to do it,' Purdue coach Gene Keady said. 'These kids didn't deserve that.' Chad Austin scored 18 points and Brantley finished with 17 for Purdue (26-5), which moved on to face the winner of the Georgia-Clemson game in Saturday's second round.
Anquell McCollum scored 21 points and Jarvis Graham added 14 for Western Carolina (17-13), which became the 48th consecutive 16th seed to lose an opening-round game. 'I'm not going to make excuses,' Hopkins said. 'We didn't deserve to keep it close. We deserved to win the game.' Miller had missed another one-and-one situation earlier, but McCollum had a driving layup swatted away by Roy Hairston. Austin made a jumper with 4:59 to play to give Purdue a 71-64 lead, but the Catamounts scored the next seven points of the game. Scott Scholtz made two free throws and a jumper to pull within 71-68 with 3:54 left. McCollum then hit a three-pointer to tie it with 3:05 remaining. 'Our decision-making the last three games have not been good, but the thing about this team all year has been they're gutsy and they're a great bunch of competitors,' Keady said. Brantley made all 11 shots he took, going 6-of-6 from the floor and all five free throws. Justin Jennings added 12 points for Purdue, which made 54 percent of its field-goal attempts but only 6 of 17 from three- point range. Western Carolina shot 50 percent from the floor, but made only 8 of 15 attempts from the foul line.