GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Lance Jones spent four years developing his game at a mid-major program before deciding to enter the transfer portal.

The payoff came in March Madness, both for Purdue at every step of what became the best season in program history and for Jones in playing on the sport’s biggest stage.

“It’s everything that I hoped for with my last year of college basketball,” Jones said. “And I wouldn’t want it any other way.”

The 6-foot-1 guard has played a huge role in helping the Boilermakers set a program record for wins, earn their first Final Four appearance since 1980 and ultimately reach the NCAA title game for only the second time in program history, the other time coming in 1969. The final step comes Monday night when the Boilermakers face reigning national champion UConn with a shot at their first crown.

Purdue (34-4) entered the season expected to be one of the top teams in men’s college basketball all season. There was a 7-foot-4 star in Zach Edey, the two-time Associated Press men’s national player of the year. There were returning starting guards in Braden Smith and Fletcher Loyer, ready to build off their freshman seasons.

Yet coach Matt Painter saw a need in the backcourt, too, for quickness, athleticism, outside shooting and defense. Jones offered all of it, making him the perfect fit as a fifth-year transfer from Southern Illinois.

“That’s kind of the way of the world right now, the landscape,” Painter said. “We got the fruits of their labor. We are very fortunate to be able to get somebody that was a quality player that could step right in. Now we were just kind of piecing the puzzle. Other programs, I think that’s a much harder thing.”

Painter has generally leaned into recruiting freshmen over adding transfers in the portal era of free player movement, saying last week that he had added two transfers in four seasons. Yet bringing in Jones, who turned 23 in October, highlighted the value of making a strategic veteran addition to supplement an existing roster rather than relying on a massive overhaul year in and year out.

Jones scored more than 1,500 career points at Southern Illinois, including 205 made 3-pointers and 176 steals to rank among that program’s career leaders. He had also been a two-time pick as an all-defensive team performer in the Missouri Valley Conference with 113 college starts on his record.

“We knew what he’s accomplished at (the midmajor) stage,” Smith said. “He’s a huge defensive guy. That’s what we needed, we needed a defensive guy. And then also someone that could help handle the basketball. That has Lance written all over it.”

At Purdue, he settled in quickly, too.

“I think just being older, my transition was kind of easier,” Jones said. “I was more comfortable having relationships with the coaches. Being more outgoing, I kind of wasn’t in a shell like a freshman necessarily would be. I was more comfortable and more laid back.”

That comfort level has been obvious for an every-game starter averaging 11.9 points while shooting 35.9% from 3-point range. It made him a reliable perimeter producer to complement Edey’s ability to dominate games in the paint — particularly as a ready shooter when Edey kicked out from collapsing defenders.

UConn guard Tristen Newton, an AP first-team All-American, had some familiarity with Jones’ game because his he kept tabs on his brother Jawaun spending last year with Jones as a graduate transfer for Southern Illinois.

“He had the ball in his hands a lot more,” Newton said. “This year he’s more of a catch-and-shoot guy, play off others. So his film at Southern Illinois and Purdue are totally different, and you have to gameplan him differently.”

Jones came up big in his first Final Four game, scoring 14 points and hitting 4 of 9 3-pointers — his 16th game with at least three 3s this year — in Saturday’s 63-50 win against North Carolina State in the national semifinals.

While that marked his best scoring performance since late February, Jones also defended Wolfpack leading scorer DJ Horne into needing 21 shots to score his 20 points.

That left only one final challenge for the Boilermakers: trying to stop UConn’s dominating tournament run toward becoming the first repeat men’s champion in 17 years awaits.

And Jones is savoring this moment, along with crediting his time at Southern Illinois for paving the way to it.

“I mean, without me being at that university for four years and those coaches believing in me, I don’t know if I would be here,” Jones said. “So I think that just kind of built my confidence up as a player and it’s kind of carried me on through this year.”


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