Purdue’s cathartic Elite Eight victory over Tennessee was 44 years in the making | Top Vip News

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DETROIT – Before the nets fell on a day few will forget, Matt Painter crossed the court and extended a hand. He needed to see one of his own. Robbie Hummel had done his best for the previous two hours to play in the middle, without prejudice or loyalties, as a radio analyst for Westwood One, but now the former Boilermaker star shook his old coach’s hand and everything turned out well . outside. Big, real, hot tears. The purest kind. Because Hummel knows perhaps more than anyone what it meant to Purdue to beat Tennessee this Sunday in Detroit and book a spot in the program’s first Final Four in 44 years.

Hummel could barely recover, so broadcast partner Kevin Kugler took over Painter’s questions. Only in the last moments of the interview did Hummel say a few words.

“We,” he said of himself and everyone else who has worn a Purdue jersey, “are very proud of you.”

Everyone was exhausted. This was no ordinary victory in the Midwest region. This was a catharsis. A moment so great that fans, young and old, wiped away tears. Gene Keady, the program’s modern-day patriarch, was a 43-year-old head coach at Western Kentucky the last time Purdue reached a Final Four. Painter, now 53, was 9 years old in 1980. Hummel was not born.

But this was a day that, for two hours, embodied what Purdue basketball is all about. A 72-66 victory was ruthless and tough. Bodies on the ground. Elbows on the chest. Bounces requiring co-payments. But it was also tactical and demanding. The right reading at the right time. Course correction in waiting times.

Basketball, well designed.

Exactly what Painter has been trying to manifest for so long.

“If you can combine skill and competitive spirit,” Painter would say later. “Those two qualities together are magic, man.”

Sunday’s alchemy began with Painter in the locker room before the game delivering this final message: “10 up or 10 down, I don’t care. Just continue. Score the ball. And make sure you have fun.”

The theory was quickly tested. Tennessee’s Dalton Knecht is a first-team All-American because he makes shots few others can make, kills suckers with a plethora of tricks, and has no trouble with his conscience. Fifteen minutes into Sunday’s game, everything was in sight. Knecht made six of his first nine shots, including all four 3-point attempts, and scored 16 points early. Seeing 5:11 on the clock and his team on the wrong end of a 15-2 run, and suddenly trailing 32-21, Painter called a timeout.

When the teams left the field for their respective meetings, Knecht received blows to the chest from all his teammates. He then looked toward the rows and rows of Volunteers fans behind the bench and declared, “This is my damn game!”

Knecht’s clean looks came, in part, because he was being checked by Purdue’s 6-foot guard Braden Smith. Purdue needed to defend the Vols star more physically, so Painter tasked Lance Jones with chasing and harassing Knecht. Jones isn’t much taller than Smith, but he is older, stronger and more physical.

What needed to be said was said in that group.

“It totally changed the game,” Hummel said of that timeout. “I don’t know what (Painter) said, but if you could bottle it, you could sell it for a lot of money.”

Turns out, according to Purdue director of basketball operations Elliot Bloom, it wasn’t just Painter talking. Zach Edey had a message and, yes, when 7-foot-4, 300-pound Zach Edey speaks, everyone listens. “We’re not tired,” Edey shouted. “They’re tired. Let’s go!”

Purdue outscored Tennessee 15-2 at the end of the half. Knecht was 1-for-5 down the stretch, scoring only on one dunk. It’s hard to score when you’re claustrophobic, and Lance Jones put him in a crowded elevator.

Knecht was incredible, but the Painter switch made a big difference. The future NBA lottery pick finished with 37 points on 31 shots. He was 2-for-8 shooting from 2 after meeting Jones.

“I was cooking,” said the fifth-year transfer from Southern Illinois. “So he wanted to do everything he could to cut off the water.”


Lance Jones’ defense of Dalton Knecht proved crucial. (Gregorio Shamus/Getty Images)

Let’s put aside the incredibleness of that quote to point out that no other Tennessee player finished in double figures and the Vols scored just 14 points at the rim. Throughout the game, behind the microphone, Hummel wondered aloud if Knecht could beat Purdue on his own.

Because that’s what it would have taken.

Purdue was, as is often the case, incredibly well prepared. Each question had an answer and, on the offensive side, it usually came from a central screen. Guards Smith and Fletcher Loyer played relentless Edey screens, leaving Tennessee constantly calculating between guarding a streaking Edey, attacking the ball carrier and sending in a help defender. The Choose Your Own Adventure game usually ended badly because Purdue really likes to make your decision and use it against you.

With less than four minutes left, Purdue leading 61-60 and Edey having scored 12 straight points, the Boilers went into their drive for a crucial possession. With Loyer and Edey stacked as protectors at the top of the lane, Smith drove hard down the right side of the lane. On an island, Tennessee center JP Estrella was stuck choosing between giving Smith a clear layup or leaving Edey. Estrella jumped to block Smith’s shot and could only watch as the ball sailed past him into Edey’s open, waiting hands. The dunk gave Purdue a three-point lead with 3:22 left.

After a missed three-pointer by Knecht on the other end, Smith went back to work. This time, after a few sequences, Edey came out to the perimeter to set up a ball screen, throwing to Smith again on the right side. This time, as Tennessee’s Zakai Zeigler went down, Smith kicked the ball to the man he left, Jones, who hit a dagger-shaped 3-pointer. Purdue up, 66-60, 2:40 left.

“Do you want to stay with us when we drive and shoot the layup, or stay with (Edey)?” Smith on the Boilers’ confusing attack. “Pick your poison there.”

Considering Edey as poison is an interesting exercise in reflection. There is no quick result in case of poisoning. Proper poisoning is planned, meticulously administered, and ruthlessly effective. In Edey, the uninformed see a monster and assume that his production is based solely on size and power. In reality, each of his movements is created and calculated from Painter’s beautiful mind.

Against Tennessee, according to an unofficial tabulation, Purdue created 40 post touches for Edey in offensive sets. This despite Tennessee doing everything imaginable to prevent such inbound passes. Those 40 touches produced all 13 of Edey’s made field goals, most of his 15 (!) committed fouls, and six missed shots, while the rest passed out (often recovering the ball).

“The way he moves Zach, the pick-and-roll, the fake-dribble handoff play,” Hummel said of Painter after the game, “that’s high-level stuff. He is simply playing chess.”

The rest of Edey’s damage occurred to the glass. This, to be clear, was absolutely a product of size and power. Five offensive rebounds, countless tips. Purdue recovered nearly 45 percent of its misses. That this game ended as the Boilers’ worst 3-point shooting performance of the season (3 of 15, 20 percent) went almost unnoticed thanks to 13 offensive rebounds in a 67-possession game.

Edey, in the end, lived up to his legend. In his 136th game at Purdue, and the biggest game the program has played since 1980, he set a new career high with 40 points. He made 13 field goals. He made 14 free throws. He grabbed 16 rebounds. He played 39 minutes and 27 seconds.

He also, appropriately, delivered the eulogy. After shooting a free throw with Purdue leading late and Tennessee looking to extend the game, Edey walked down the court with his head down. His teammate Mason Gillis approached from his left and gave him a shove. Edey looked at him, shook his head and just said, “I’m fine.”

On the next play, with the Vols looking to cut Purdue’s lead to two or three with less than 40 seconds remaining, Edey faced Knecht (star on star, alpha on alpha) and deflected the shot to seal the game.

When the final horn sounded, not knowing what else to do, Edey cut the line and stood in front of Tennessee coach Rick Barnes to hug his head coach. He stood his ground. Painter’s lung may have collapsed from the squeeze, but it was worth it.

“I have to pay him back,” said Edey, whose post-high school scholarship list was pretty light for a player currently awaiting his second shipment of national player of the year awards. “There were so many coaches who overlooked me. Name a program, I can name a coach that took care of me.”

Tennessee fans will probably bemoan the officiating. It’s understandable. The Vols were flagged for 25 fouls, compared to Purdue’s 12, while Edey committed 16 and was flagged for one. His 22 free throw attempts were twice as many as Tennessee took as a team (11). It was a very similar story when the two teams met earlier this year as Purdue cruised to a victory at the Maui Invitational.

Barnes, however, later emphasized that he did not blame the referee. Edey, he said, is unique and extremely difficult to officiate, and what was done was done.

And now Purdue is out of the Final Four in Phoenix. There isn’t enough time to explain all the rings on the tree that preceded this, but Hummel is among them and could speak for them all. All old boilers. All the greats from the last 44 years (himself, Glenn Robinson, E’Twaun Moore, Caleb Swanigan, Carsen Edwards, Jaden Ivey) who didn’t make the Final Four. Painter himself played from 1990 to 1993, reaching three NCAA Tournaments, before replacing his former coach, Keady, as head coach 19 years ago.

“I’ve talked to a lot of former guys who say, man, when I see this team, they make me so proud because they do it the right way,” Hummel said.

In another universe, they might have been some of those former players who took Purdue to the Final Four. I’m sure everyone has thought about it. Hummel surely had. He has lived most of his adult life resentful of the fact that those diabolical injuries not only slowed his career but perhaps prevented Purdue from reaching this promised land years ago.

“I know what they’ve been through,” Hummel said. “They’ve been through hell and come out on the other side.”

The view there is different.

He looks a lot like Phoenix.

(Top photo of Zach Edey hugging Matt Painter: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

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