Purdue buries ’23 loss, into Final Four behind Zach Edey’s 40

DETROIT — In a sea of black and gold screams, Matt Painter climbed the ladder and held his hand in the air before he snipped the net at Little Caesars Arena.

Minutes before Purdue had sealed a contentious 72-66 win over Tennessee in the Elite Eight on Sunday to secure the school’s third trip to the Final Four, however, Painter thought about the talk.

A year ago, he had to do it at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio, while Fairleigh Dickinson celebrated its victory as the second 16-seed in NCAA tournament history to knock off a 1-seed. Painters’ players looked at him with tears in their eyes and wondered how it had all fallen apart — and if they could ever put it back together again.

“That speech stinks,” Painter said. “We’ve all got them. Only one coach doesn’t get to use it.”

Yet, the Boilermakers never fled the shadow cast by that upset loss. Instead, they confronted it throughout the season, knowing they’d never convert the naysayers into believers without a deep run in the NCAA tournament.

They arrived at this point with a win — a victory one Purdue staffer called “cathartic” — after the best performance of senior center Zach Edey‘s storied career.

Both Edey (40 points, 16 rebounds in 39 minutes) and Tennessee star Dalton Knecht (37 points, 6-for-12 from the 3-point line), the two front-runners for every major national player of the year award, put on a show Sunday. Edey and Knecht are the third pair of opposing players to both have 35-point games in the Elite Eight or later, per ESPN Stats & Information.

Purdue, which entered the game as the top 3-point shooting team in America, finished 3-for-15 from beyond the arc and made 21 of its 33 free throw attempts. Tennessee connected on 42% of its 3-point attempts but just 39% of its overall field goal attempts.

“We knew that’s what the game was going to be,” Edey said. “When you go up against a team like Tennessee, a win is not always going to be pretty. The only thing that matters is getting the job done in the end.”

But it was Edey’s effort that swayed the game in his team’s favor. His block on Knecht’s must-have bucket with 34 seconds to play ended any Tennessee comeback hopes. He’s the first player to have 40 points and at least 15 rebounds in the NCAA tournament since 1990, per ESPN Stats & Information.

“He’s the best player in college basketball, one of the greats,” said Fletcher Loyer, who finished with 14 points for Purdue. “He needs more respect because what he has done is unreal. I’m so proud of him and the work he has put in.”

Before the game, both Edey and Knecht said a trip to the Final Four superseded any talk about who would win the Wooden Award and other honors.

Still, as the game got tight in the final minutes Sunday — the way it also had in the first meeting between these two teams, a 71-67 win for Purdue in the Maui Invitational in November — both players seemed aware that they had entered one of those moments that can birth a legend.

“He’s a great player,” Edey said of Knecht. “It was never a battle between me and Dalton. It was a battle of Purdue versus Tennessee. We both were relied on [throughout] the game. We both showed up. We were able to get the win.”

As his team prepared for the rematch, Volunteers coach Rick Barnes and his players were quick to insinuate the officiating had previously made it difficult to corral Edey. In the first game, Tennessee had 30 fouls and Purdue had 48 free throw attempts.

Early in the game Sunday, there might have been some deja vu for the Vols, who drew six fouls in the first seven minutes of the game — mostly as players tried to put a body on Edey.

With eight minutes to play Sunday, Tennessee had 18 fouls and finished with 25 overall.

Tennessee stayed in the game, though. Knecht hit a 3-pointer to tie the game 56-56 with 7:04 to play.

But Edey’s efforts late — a dunk, key free throws and the late block on Knecht — were the game-altering feats that tipped the matchup in Purdue’s favor.

After the win, Purdue did not want to leave the floor.

The Boilermakers embraced one another, and each hug seemed to last longer than the previous one. Their family members and friends scooped confetti from the floor and showed it to one another like it was a handful of gold.

Amid the celebration, Edey lifted the security rope around the team and walked toward the stands, where he found a sign from a fan that said, “Happy Edey-Ster,” a play on “Happy Easter.” The 7-foot-4 star asked for a pen to autograph the sign.

When it was his turn to cut the net, he didn’t need a ladder. He then handed a piece of the net to former Purdue coach Gene Keady, who won 512 games with the Boilermakers and coached Painter when he played for the team from 1989 to 1993.

“You’ve always got to pay respect to those that came first,” Edey said. “He built this. It doesn’t go over our heads. He helped set this all up. To be able to pay him back and give him a little piece of the net, it’s the least I can do.”

Keady is still one of Painter’s mentors. And when Purdue lost to Fairleigh Dickinson last year, the current Purdue head coach called him.

“[I told him] keep your head up, keep working hard and he did that,” Keady said. “He’s always been a good listener and I’m very proud of him.”

As Painter’s team made the 3½-hour trek from Columbus, Ohio, to West Lafayette, Indiana, last season following its first-round loss, Painter scribbled six pages of notes on all the mistakes that had led to that moment.

It’s that element of the game, he said Sunday, people don’t often see.

“The whole evolution of a coach beating himself up,” Painter said. “When people knock you and say stuff about you, you don’t like living with yourself at times. And that’s terrible. It’s just a damn game. But it’s how you feel. It’s really how you feel.”

But Painter has his first Final Four appearance now, and everything that transpired last season is a distant memory.

His team might be the only remaining squad that has a chance to upset UConn. Yet, he wasn’t in a rush to think about the future Sunday.

That’s why he held his hand high and looked around Little Caesars Arena for an extra second or two while he stood atop that ladder after the game, knowing his team’s next flight will be to Glendale, Arizona, for the Final Four.

“You feel a lot of different people coming at you,” Painter said about the past year for the program. “And you’ve got to be strong in your convictions. I think we were strong in our convictions in terms of how we play and how we do things. I’m just happy for our team.”

First appeared on www.espn.com

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