Purdue reaches first Final Four since 1980


DETROIT – This one should have been in Arizona, but that’s how it goes sometimes — a team the quality of a No. 1 seed falters a bit late and falls to a No. 2, and that team finds its path to a Final Four much more difficult as a result.

The Tennessee Volunteers can rue that along with many missed opportunities in Sunday’s Elite Eight classic and a 72-66 loss to Midwest Region No. 1 seed Purdue at Little Caesar’s Arena. The Purdue Boilermakers can celebrate history.

The No. 2 seed Vols had control at times and fought back with unrelenting persistence in the second half, but could not overcome Matt Painter’s Boilermakers, led by dominating 7-foot-4 senior center Zach Edey. Edey had 40 points, 16 rebounds and big defense down the stretch to put Purdue (33-4) into the Final Four in Glendale, Ariz., against the winner of Duke and N.C. State. It’s Painter’s first Final Four and the program’s first since 1980.

Tennessee (27-9) continues to seek the first Final Four in program history, and coach Rick Barnes’ first since his lone trip, in 2003, with Texas. This was a team good enough to do it. But a No. 1 seed out West — the potential outcome for this team had it not dropped consecutive games to Kentucky and Mississippi State before the tournament — would have been the more advantageous starting point.

Tennessee had a star this season, too, senior wing Dalton Knecht, and he went off for 37 points. He also went cold from outside late, missing some quality looks that had a chance to tilt the game in the Vols’ favor. Of course, asking for more than 14 baskets, six of them 3-pointers, from one player is a bit excessive. UT had no one else in double figures.

The biggest shot of the game was made by Purdue guard Lance Jones, a 3-pointer from the wing to make it 66-60 Boilermakers with 2:42 to play.

These teams took “game of runs” to extreme lengths in the first half. The Vols got the first bit of separation, 17-12, on a Knecht 3-pointer. The Boilermakers promptly increased their effort to stay stuck to him and found a stretch of lockdown defense as a result. The Vols didn’t score for a stretch of five minutes and 35 seconds — finally ended when Josiah James drilled a corner triple. Purdue didn’t take as much advantage as it could have, though, only scoring seven points during the drought.

The James shot got the Vols rolling downhill. A 15-2 run, punctuated by two Knecht 3-pointers after UT offensive rebounds, made it 32-21 Tennessee with 5:11 left in the half, prompting a Painter timeout.

The timeout worked. The Boilers took their turn to deliver a flurry, 13 straight points to regain the lead. An 80/20 Purdue crowd, nervously quiet for a few moments, was back to a steady roar. Purdue held Tennessee without a point for another four minutes and 30 seconds, and it was 36-34 Boilermakers at the half.

So in 10:05 of first-half action, Tennessee couldn’t manage a point. In the other 9:55, the Vols scored 34. All in all, though, they weren’t in terrible shape at the break — centers Jonas Aidoo and Tobe Awaka both had two fouls, but got them late in the half.

Jahmai Mashack, who started in place of Santiago Vescovi — though Vescovi (flu) played after missing Friday’s win over Creighton — had two as well, but no one else was in foul trouble. The game was called to give Tennessee a better chance than in a 71-67 loss to Purdue in the Maui Invitational in November, in which both Aidoo and Awaka fouled out and the Vols picked up 30 as a team.

But the whistles were a bit more sensitive to contact coming right out of the second half. Aidoo got a third foul trying to deny Edey position. Awaka came in and promptly got his third, the same kind of foul. Mashack made it a trifecta of third fouls called before the first TV timeout of the second half, and that Hawaii game suddenly came to mind.

Then Awaka got his fourth with 14:03 left, trying to deny Edey an offensive rebound, and freshman JP Estrella was needed for an extended stint. The Vols had few answers on defense with the fouls piling up — Purdue in the bonus with 13:54 left in the game.

And then it was 54-46 Purdue, and things looked grim for the Vols. So naturally they held Purdue scoreless for a stretch of 2:18 and went on a furious 10-2 run to tie it up and send this game where it was always destined to go — right to the final stretch. That’s when Purdue emerged and made more high-pressure plays than Tennessee.

Edey swatting Knecht at the rim with the Vols down five in the waning seconds joined Jones’ 3-pointer as the plays that will be remembered for getting this program to the Final Four.

Required reading

(Photo: Mike Mulholland / Getty Images)

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