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Unforgettable losses propel Grambling State and Purdue to Midwest matchup in March Madness

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Grambling State star Jourdan Smith spent months losing sleep over his team's 2023 season finale.

This week, he celebrated the school's biggest basketball win with a bleary-eyed moment of joy.

After leading the Tigers to the Southwestern Athletic Conference regular-season title, after setting up a rematch in the conference's tourney championship game against three-time defending champ Texas Southern, after exorcising the demon by earning the school's first NCAA Tournament ticket, Smith's momentous dunk with 56 seconds left sent Grambling past Montana State and cemented his place in Tigers lore.

Not even in his wildest dreams did Smith think he and his teammates would make it this far, to Friday's first-round Midwest Region matchup against top-seeded Purdue.

“It was on my mind the whole offseason, honestly,” he said Thursday, reflecting on his motivation this season. “There were days I couldn’t sleep just thinking about that. Then, when the season started, it was just trying to get back to that moment. Chopping wood, going day by day and, truthfully, it’s still something I think about.”

Until they rallied from a 14-point, second-half deficit, it seemed most college basketball fans were unaware of the Tigers' story. Now Grambling (21-14) has emerged as one of this tourney’s early Cinderella stories and the signs are all around.

Smith said his phone was “blowing up” on the 120-mile bus trip to Indy. More calls and texts arrived Thursday morning. And when the Tigers returned to their locker room following a light, short workout, the expansive media horde prompted giggles as some players pulled out cell phones and videotaped the rare scene — teammates on camera.

It could just be a preview of coming attractions if the Grambling joins Fairleigh Dickinson and UMBC as the only No. 16 seeds to reach the second round.

“We’re excited,” Smith said. “We feel like this is just another team in our way, a team we’re capable of beating when we go on the court."

Purdue understands both the tale and the sentiment as well as any team still playing.

The Boilermakers spent 371 days fighting their way back from a journey that took them from college basketball's mountaintop to the abyss in one glaring moment, their loss to Fairleigh Dickinson last March. And now, they're back, hoping to silence the doubters.

“We want to prove people wrong. I think a lot of people on this team have that (loss) in the back of our mind and that's not who we are," two-time All-American Zach Edey said. "That's not what we're defined by. I think a lot of people on the team want to show that's not the truth.”

But double-digit seeds have troubled Purdue even before FDU fiasco. The Boilermakers suffered a regional semifinal loss to No. 15 Saint Peter's in 2022, with first-round losses to No. 13 North Texas in 2021 and No. 12 Little Rock in 2016.

Coach Matt Painter only has reached one Elite Eight in 19 seasons with the Boilermakers, a program that hasn't reached a Final Four since 1980. This time could be different.

The Boilermakers' quest begins with a home-state advantage in the same Indy venue it toppled Arizona earlier this season. If they reach the Sweet 16, they'll play just 4 1/2 hours from campus in Detroit. Perhaps most important, this is not the same team that struggled against Fairleigh Dickinson's defense.

“I know we've improved,” Painter said. “We're a better basketball team, a more skilled basketball team, but from a competitive standpoint, this is what you want. You want to get back to where you are. It's hard to get back in the position we were.”

It was hard for the Tigers to get back, too.

They lost all five regular-season games against NCAA Tourney teams, all by at least 18 points, before rewriting the script Wednesday. If they can find a way to slow down the 7-foot-4 Edey, they won't just be dreaming; they'll be living the dream.

“You want them to find that belief moment where you're believing in yourself and that you can actually go out there and accomplish the task being asked,” coach Donte' Jacksson said. “We got a chance to reset (after losing to Alabama State) and they were ready to roll through the SWAC, same as last night.”

GETTING PHYSICAL

The treks back to the NCAA Tourney for eighth-seeded Utah State (27-6) and No. 9 seed TCU also have been challenging.

First-year coach Danny Sprinkle took over a team that had three players and was one of three Division I schools to start this season without a returnee who had scored a point. Mountain West Player of the Year Great Osobor changed the whole equation when he transferred from Montana State, and now Osobor will be at the forefront of TCU's game plan Friday. He averages 18.0 points and 9.2 rebounds.

“I think we're going to play physical against him,” backup forward Xavier Cork said. “We didn't see a lot of teams making him make a cross-court pass, so we're going to try to make him do a lot of those. We're going to look to make him work.”.

The Horned Frogs (21-12) have always relied on defense during coach Jamie Dixon's tenure and that's not going to change with a school-record third straight tourney trip. They've won one game each of the past two postseasons, and the Aggies, the Mountain West regular-season champs, believe they can end that streak.

“Like Great mentioned, physicality is going to be a big point in this game,” guard Ian Martinez said. “If we come with the right mentality and try to give the first punch, then we'll be fine.”

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AP March Madness bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-mens-bracket and coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness