Edey leads Purdue to first Final Four since 1980

Purdue center Zach Edey doesn’t need the ladder to help cut down the net after Sunday’s NCAA Tournament regional final win against Tennessee in Detroit. (Associated Press)
Purdue center Zach Edey doesn’t need the ladder to help cut down the net after Sunday’s NCAA Tournament regional final win against Tennessee in Detroit. (Associated Press)

DETROIT -- By the time all the scrapping and scratching and diving on the floor was done, it felt like a shame that both those teams, and both those players, weren’t moving onto the Final Four.

Just don’t expect Purdue to feel bad about it.

Boilermakers big man Zach Edey went for a career high 40 points Sunday to muscle Purdue within two wins of the title for the first time since 1980 with a 72-66 victory against Dalton Knecht and his never-say-quit Tennessee teammates.

The 7-foot-4 Edey, a unanimous AP All-American, didn’t even need a ladder to cut down the net after edging out Knecht, another All-American, who finished with 37 points.

The game’s top two players, and their teams, went back and forth all day. How close was it? With 5 minutes left and the score tied at 58, both players had scored 31 points on 12 field goals. According to OptaSTATS, this was the first time opposing players scored more than half their squads’ points in an NCAA Tournament game.

“You’re not trying to take away 100 percent, you’re trying to take away maybe 80 percent of what he’s trying to get accomplished,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said of Knecht. “But we don’t take Zach for granted. He could’ve scored 50 tonight if he’d made his free throws.”

Edey missed eight of his 22 attempts from the foul line. One of those misses sparked the play of the game. After Tennessee grabbed the rebound and worked the ball downcourt, Edey swatted away Knecht’s layup as he drove to the basket while trailing by five with 33 seconds left.

It was Edey’s only block of the day, and it put an end to the Vols’ desperate comeback hopes.

“I was just trying to get back, and make my presence felt on the defensive end of the court, and make up for it,” Edey said.

Top-seeded Purdue (33-4) set aside last year’s grand disappointment -- a first-round loss as a No. 1 seed -- to book the trip to Glendale, Ariz. On Saturday, Edey and the Boilermakers will face big man DJ Burns Jr. and 11th-seeded North Carolina State in the national semifinals.

“We had to take it,” Painter said of the abuse that came last year. “Sometimes when you sit in it and you’re honest with yourself and you take it, some great things can happen.”

Tennessee (27-9), a No. 2 seed, was seeking its first Final Four, and Vols coach Rick Barnes was denied the second trip of his 38-year career to college basketball’s promised land.

This was a slugfest of a game, a welcome break from the action during the first two weeks of a March Madness that has been more sleepy than mad. It was played in front of an ear-splitting crowd packed with Purdue fans who made their way up from Indiana.

They were looking for history, and they got it -- along with the game ball that Boilermakers guard Fletcher Loyer chucked about 20 rows into the stands when the buzzer went off.

The school’s 87-year-old former coach, Gene Keady, watched from the stands -- then, afterward, came onto the floor to receive a piece of the freshly cut net from Edey.

“It shows people if you do things the right way, it will pay off,” the ex-coach said.

At times, the game looked like the sort Keady might have coached back in the ’80s and ’90s.

Purdue pounded the ball to Edey in the post, and though the grabby, swatty Tennessee defense made some inroads -- even blocking two of his shots -- foul trouble piled up for Tennessee and Edey wore them down. He finished 13-of-21 from the floor.

Barnes refused to make an issue out of Edey’s 22 free throws or the final foul tally: Tennessee 25, Purdue 12.

“He’s a difficult guy to guard against, but he’s a difficult guy for referees to officiate, too,” Barnes said. “He’s a hard guy to do that with because he’s a unique guy in terms of how he plays.”

Meanwhile, the 3-point arc that was six years from coming into existence at Purdue’s last trip this far into the tournament was barely a factor for the Boilermakers. They went 3-of-15 from long range.

And yet, it was a trio of 3-point attempts that turned this game. Knecht missed a pair of open looks, first with his team trailing by three at the 3:09 mark, then again on the next possession when down by six.

In between, Lance Jones spotted up from the corner for a 3 that gave Purdue a 66-60 lead.

The coup de grace came with Tennessee trying to carve into a 69-64 deficit. Knecht drove down the lane and went up, but Edey, who played just a few seconds short of the full 40 minutes, scooted over and cleanly swatted the shot.

“A great play, you’ve got to give him credit,” Barnes said.

Knecht finished 14-of-31 from the floor. After making his first four 3-pointers, he went 2-of-8.

“I don’t think I put the team on my back,” Knecht said. “I think all of us carried each other. I think every single one of us did what we needed to do. At the end of the day, they were just the better team.”

Notes: Edey is the first player with 40-plus points and at least 16 rebounds in an NCAA Tournament game since Bo Kimble of Loyola Marymount had 45 points and 18 rebounds in a 1990 contest against New Mexico State. … Edey was named the Midwest’s most outstanding player. Joining him on the all-region team were Knecht, Braden Smith (Purdue), Baylor Scheierman (Creighton) and Zakai Zeigler (Tennessee).

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