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Matt Painter’s chess moves and Zach Edey’s relentlessness lead Purdue to Final Four – The Athletic

DETROIT — Before the nets came down on a day few will forget, Matt Painter walked across the court and extended a hand. He needed to see one of his own. Robbie Hummel had done his damnedest for the previous two hours to play it down the middle, with no bias, no allegiance, as a radio analyst for Westwood One, but now the former Boilermaker star clasped the hand of his old coach and it all came out. Big, real, hot tears. The purest kind. Because Hummel knows perhaps more than anyone else what it meant for Purdue to beat Tennessee on this Sunday in Detroit and book a spot in the program’s first Final Four in 44 years.

Hummel could hardly collect himself, so broadcast partner Kevin Kugler handled the questions for Painter. Only in the waning moments of the interview did Hummel muster a few words.

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

Everyone was spent. This was no ordinary Midwest Regional victory. This was catharsis. A moment so large that fans young and old brushed away tears. Gene Keady, the program’s modern 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 wasn’t born.

But this was a day that, for two hours, embodied what Purdue basketball is. A 72-66 win was ruthless and tough. Bodies on the floor. Elbows in chests. Rebounds requiring co-pays. But it was also tactical and exacting. The right reads at the right time. Course correction in timeouts.

Basketball, well-engineered.

Exactly what Painter has tried to manifest for so long.

“If you can put skill and competitive spirit together,” Painter would say afterward. “Those two qualities together is magic, man.”

Sunday’s alchemy began with Painter in the pregame locker room delivering this final message: “Up 10, or down 10, I don’t care. Just keep going. Score the ball. And make sure you have f—ing fun.”

The theory was promptly tested. Tennessee’s Dalton Knecht is a first-team All-American because he gets off shots few others can, kills fools with a deep bag of tricks and is unhindered by conscience. Fifteen minutes into Sunday’s game, it was all on full display. Knecht made six of his first nine shots, including all four 3-point attempts, and scored 16 early points. 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 timeout.

As the teams exited the floor to their respective huddles, Knecht was met with chest bumps by every teammate. He then stared up into the rows and rows of Volunteers fans behind the bench and declared: “This is my f—ing game!”

Knecht’s clean looks were coming, in part, because he was being checked by 6-foot Purdue 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’s older, stronger and more physical.

What needed to be said was said in that huddle.

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

Turns out, according to Purdue director of basketball operations Elliot Bloom, it wasn’t only 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 to end the half. Knecht went 1-of-5 in the stretch, scoring only on a runout dunk. It’s hard to score when suffering from claustrophobia, and Lance Jones put him in a crowded elevator.

Knecht was incredible, but Painter’s switch made a world of difference. The soon-to-be NBA lottery pick finished with 37 points on 31 shots. He went 2-of-8 on 2s after being introduced to Jones.

“He was cooking,” the fifth-year transfer from Southern Illinois said. “So I wanted to do anything I could to shut his water off.”

Lance Jones’ defense on Dalton Knecht proved crucial. (Gregory Shamus / Getty Images)

Let’s set aside how incredible that quote is to point out that no other Tennessee player finished in double figures and the Vols scored only 14 points at the rim. All game, from behind the microphone, Hummel wondered aloud if Knecht could actually take down Purdue by himself.

Because that’s what it would’ve taken.

Purdue was, as it so often is, inconceivably well-prepared. Every question had an answer, and on the offensive end, it was typically born from a middle ball screen. Guards Smith and Fletcher Loyer played off relentless screens from Edey, leaving Tennessee constantly calculating between guarding Edey on the roll, attacking the ballhandler and sending a help-defender. The game of Choose Your Own Adventure typically ended badly because Purdue so enjoys taking your decision and using it against you.

With under four minutes to go and Purdue leading 61-60, and Edey having scored 12 straight points, the Boilers got into their offense for a crucial possession. With Loyer and Edey stacked as screeners atop the lane, Smith drove hard down the right side of the lane. On an island, Tennessee center J.P. Estrella was stuck picking between giving Smith a clear layup or leaving Edey. Jumping to block Smith’s shot, Estrella could only watch as the ball passed in front of him to the open, waiting hands of Edey. The dunk gave Purdue a three-point lead with 3:22 to go.

Following a missed Knecht 3 on the other end, Smith again went to work. This time, after some sequencing, Edey stepped out to the perimeter for a ball screen, springing Smith down the right side, again. This time, as Tennessee’s Zakai Zeigler sagged, Smith kicked the ball to the man he left, Jones, who stepped into a dagger 3-pointer. Purdue up, 66-60, 2:40 to go.

“Do they want to stay with us when we drive, and we’ll shoot the layup, or stay with (Edey)?” Smith said of the Boilers’ confounding attack. “Pick your poison there.”

Considering Edey as a poison is an interesting thought exercise. There’s no rapid result in poisoning. A proper poisoning is schemed, meticulously administered and mercilessly effective. In Edey, the uninformed see a monster and assume his production is based only on size and power. In reality, his every movement is created and calculated from Painter’s beautiful mind.

Against Tennessee, according to an unofficial tabulation, Purdue created 40 post touches for Edey out of offensive sets. This is despite Tennessee doing all things imaginable to prevent such entry passes. Those 40 touches produced all 13 of Edey’s made field goals, a bulk of his 15(!) fouls drawn and six missed shots, while he passed out of the rest (often getting the ball back).

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

The rest of Edey’s damage came on the glass. This, to be clear, was absolutely a product of size and power. Five offensive rebounds, countless tip-outs. Purdue rebounded nearly 45 percent of its misses. That this game ended as the Boilers’ worst 3-pointing 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 air-balling a foul shot with Purdue leading late and Tennessee looking to extend the game, Edey walked down the floor with his head slung. Teammate Mason Gillis approached from his left and gave a nudge. Edey looked at him, shook his head, and said, only, “I’m good.”

The next play, with the Vols looking to cut Purdue’s lead to two or three with under 40 seconds left, Edey met Knecht — star v. star, alpha v. alpha — and swatted away the shot and sealed the game.

As the final horn sounded, unsure what else to do, Edey cut the line, stepping in front of Tennessee coach Rick Barnes to hug his head coach. He held tight. Painter might have a collapsed lung from such a squeeze, but it was worth it.

“I get to pay him back,” said Edey, whose scholarship list out of high school was fairly light for a player currently awaiting his second shipment of national player of the year awards. “There were so many coaches that overlooked me. Name a program, I can name a coach that looked over me.”

Tennessee fans will likely bemoan the officiating. Understandably. The Vols were called for 25 fouls, compared to Purdue’s 12, while Edey drew 16 and was called for one. His 22 free-throw attempts were double what Tennessee shot as a team (11). It was a very similar story when the two teams met earlier this year when Purdue notched a win in the Maui Invitational.

Barnes, though, stressed afterward that he did not blame the officiating. Edey, he said, is both unique and exceedingly difficult to officiate, and what was done, was done.

And now Purdue is off the Final Four in Phoenix. There isn’t enough time here to account for all the rings in the tree that preceded this, but Hummel is among them and could speak for everyone. All the former Boilers. All the greats over the last 44 years — himself, Glenn Robinson, E’Twaun Moore, Caleb Swanigan, Carsen Edwards, Jaden Ivey — who didn’t reach the Final Four. Painter, himself, played from 1990-93, reaching three NCAA Tournaments, before later replacing his old coach, Keady, as head coach 19 years ago.

“I’ve talked to so many former guys that say, man, when I watch this team, they make me so proud because they do it the right way,” Hummel said.

In another universe, it might’ve been some of those former players who took Purdue to the Final Four. Surely they’ve all thought about it. Hummel surely had. He’s lived most of his adult life resenting the fact that those diabolical injuries not only curbed his career but maybe kept 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 the other side.”

The view is different there.

It looks an awful lot like Phoenix.

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