OKLAHOMA CITY -- Purdue's suddenly sizzling offense has the Boilermakers one win away from what would be an improbable berth in the Final Four.
For the second straight game, Purdue built a big lead with strong shooting, and the sixth-seeded Boilermakers held off a late rally to beat Rutgers 67-61 Sunday night to advance to the round of eight in the NCAA tournament.
Lakisha Freeman scored 18 points, FahKara Malone hit a key basket in the final minute and Jodi Howell added the clinching free throws with 6.2 seconds left for Purdue (25-10), which will play top-seeded Oklahoma, a 70-59 winner over fourth-seeded Pittsburgh, on Tuesday in the regional final.
The Boilermakers became the second No. 6 seed to reach the round of eight, joining Arizona State. Purdue, which shot 52.9 percent from the field, will make its eighth appearance in a regional final and has made the Final Four three times, winning the 1999 national championship.
"We play our best basketball when we are relaxed and not tense and not worrying about things," said Purdue forward Lindsay Wisdom-Hylton, who had 13 points and eight rebounds. "We had nothing to lose here, so we had to go and play our hearts out. And whoever plays the best wins the game, and we're playing our best basketball right now."
Brittany Ray scored 19 points and Epiphanny Prince added 15 for seventh-seeded Rutgers (21-13), which upset second-seeded Auburn in the second round.
But the Scarlet Knights couldn't match Purdue's hot shooting, falling behind by 16 in the first half and never digging out of that hole. They came close, twice pulling within two in the final minutes, the last time at 63-61 on a reverse layup by Khadijah Rushdan with 1:44 left.
After the teams traded empty possessions -- with Rutgers senior Kia Vaughn throwing the ball away after a Purdue miss -- Malone made a 15-foot jumper with 46.7 seconds left for Purdue as the shot clock expired.
"That was a player making a play," Purdue coach Sharon Versyp said. "They took us out of what we wanted to run. They did a great job. But at this point, sometimes the stars align right. There has to be some luck in this, and as soon as it was released from FahKara's hand, I knew it was in."
Rushdan, a freshman, traveled at the other end. Malone missed the front end of a one-and-one with 16.5 seconds left, but Prince missed a 3-point attempt for Rutgers, and her follow shot was blocked by 6-foot-4 Danielle Campbell.
Howell then made her free throws, sealing the win for Purdue, which was only the second team this season to shoot better than 50 percent against Rutgers.
"More than hurt, I'm disappointed," Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer said. "We knew what we had to do and we went out there and were foolish."
Stringer has openly expressed her frustration with her team's inconsistent play and said that Sunday's game was a microcosm of the Scarlet Knights' season.
"It was in the end as it was in the beginning, the same things, the same behaviors," Stringer said. "I was thinking, 'Why are we here?'"
Purdue entered Sunday's game shooting 43.6 percent on the season, but the Boilermakers now have ridden their offense to two straight wins.
In an 85-70 win over third-seeded North Carolina in the tournament's second round, Freeman scored 16 points as her team shot a season-high 57.1 percent from the field. She and the Boilermakers picked up Sunday right where they'd left off.
Purdue shot 55 percent from the field (16-of-29) in the first half before settling for a 40-33 lead. Freeman was 6-for-6 from the field and scored 12 points by the break.
"For us, our defense always sets up our offense, but when you knock down a big shot, you don't have tired legs on defense," Versyp said.
"Our defense has been our bread and butter the whole time. I think that's been the key because we hope you shoot 50 or 60 percent, but that's not going to happen all the time."
An early 15-4 run put the Boilermakers up 17-9, and they later scored 12 straight points in one stretch. Wisdom-Hylton's bucket at the 4:46 mark made it 37-21, but the Boilermakers scored only one more basket the rest of the half.
Rutgers closed the gap with a 12-1 run, keyed by five points from Prince. But after halftime, Purdue quickly rebuilt its lead to double digits.
Campbell added six points and 12 rebounds for Purdue, while Freeman also had six rebounds and five assists.
Rushdan scored 11 and Vaughn had 10 points and 11 rebounds for Rutgers, her fifth double-double of the season and second of the tournament.
"We started off [the season] really, really sluggish and not knowing roles or what we were capable of doing," Vaughn said. "We finally did at the end of the season. It's just that today, it didn't work in our favor."