Friday, March 16, 2012 | 8:16 p.m.
• Betting line via Wynn Las Vegas: St. Mary's -2, does not cover.
OMAHA, Neb. — Purdue made it through its NCAA opener again, but Saint Mary's made it interesting.
Lewis Jackson made the go-ahead free throws with 22.8 seconds left after the Gaels had rallied from 11 points down late to take their first lead, and the Boilermakers won 72-69 in the Midwest Regional on Friday night.
"Knowing my fate and my career were laying in my hands, I just had the confidence to knock those down," said Jackson, the Boilermakers' senior point guard.
Jorden Page had hit a 3-pointer with 44.2 seconds left to finish a 14-2 run that brought the Gaels back from a 66-55 deficit with 4:24 to play.
Purdue's Terone Johnson and Saint Mary's Clint Steindl were called for traveling before Jackson made his free throws. Page badly missed what would have been a go-ahead 3 with 10 seconds left, and Robbie Hummel made two free throws for a three-point lead.
Rob Jones, who had 17 of his 23 points in the second half, missed a 3 at the buzzer for the seventh-seeded Gaels (27-6).
"It's a program win," Purdue's Ryne Smith said. "We were a bubble team for a long time and we got in. We're allowed two hours to enjoy this and then we have to move on to the next game."
Purdue won its NCAA tournament opener for the 14th straight time. The Gaels were back in the tournament for the first time since their surprising run to the round of 16 in 2010 and almost were able to stick around again after trailing by as many as 13 in the second half.
"We're very grateful to get this victory," Purdue coach Matt Painter said. "Any time you play a team like Saint Mary's and you get a 13-point lead, you've got to put them away. When they come back to take a lead like they did, it's normally very difficult to win the game. Give our guys credit for stepping up and making plays and free throws."
Johnson had 21 points for the 10th-seeded Boilermakers (22-12). Jackson scored 15 of his 18 in the second half and Hummel and Anthony Johnson finished with 10 apiece.
"Terone Johnson really hurt us," Saint Mary's coach Randy Bennett said. "We finally adjusted and finally started getting some stops toward the end and had a chance to win it and didn't get it done. But it wasn't a lack of competitiveness or effort. It just didn't go our way down the stretch."
Purdue turned back the Gaels repeatedly in the second half before the West Coast Conference champions made one last push.
Matthew Dellavedova's three-point play got the Gaels within 66-58 with 4 minutes to play.
After Dellavedova took a charge from D.J. Byrd, he drove the length of the floor for a layup. Hummel missed at the other end, and Jones hit a jumper to make it a four-point game with 2:41 left.
Terone Johnson badly missed a free throw, and Jones hit a baseline jumper.
Jackson's drive to the hoop put Purdue back up 68-64 with 1:37 left. Dellavedova made a couple of free throws to pull the Gaels within two. After Hummel missed a 3, Page took a pass from Dellavedova for his only 3 of the night and a 69-68 Saint Mary's lead.
Hummel, back in the tournament after missing the past two Purdue appearances because of ACL tears in his right knee, didn't seem to miss a beat on the big stage. He hit an early 3, swapped some skin with Smith on the way back to play defense, and later got a friendly bounce from the rim on a baseline jumper.
But Terone Johnson, starting his eighth straight game after beginning the season on the bench, carried the Boilermakers in the first half. He shot 6 of 8 and had 15 points, almost double his season average.
He scored seven points in an 8-0 Purdue run, finishing the spurt with a layup after Byrd rebounded Jackson's missed free throw for a 27-16 lead.
"I think it just came down to, we underestimated him," Jones said. "Props to him and congrats for stepping up and showing up and playing well. I think there are things we could have done better defensively just to stop 'em and not let 'em get to the bucket, but it's too late for that now."
Saint Mary's struggled for the first 20 minutes, shooting just 31 percent and missing all but one of their 15 3-point attempts. The Gaels finished at 42 percent and went 4 of 25 on 3s.
The atmosphere at CenturyLink Center was subdued early, with the crowd drained from No. 15 seed Norfolk State's 86-84 upset of Missouri in the previous game.
During the first media timeout a group of Norfolk State players walked into arena, some still in game jerseys, and got a big cheer as they lifted their hands to raise the roof.