April 17, 2024

Brighton Journal

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Purdue's cathartic Elite Eight win over Tennessee was 44 years in the making

Purdue's cathartic Elite Eight win over Tennessee was 44 years in the making

DETROIT — Before the nets dropped on a day few will forget, Matt Painter walked across the court and extended his hand. He needed to see one of his own. Robbie Hamill had done his best over the past two hours to play ball in the middle, without any bias or loyalty, as a radio analyst for Westwood One, but now the former Boilermaker star took his old coach's hand and everything came to fruition. Outside. Big, real, hot tears. The purest kind. Because Hamill probably knows better than anyone what it means for Purdue to beat Tennessee on Sunday in Detroit and secure a spot in the program's first Final Four in 44 years.

Hamill couldn't pull himself together, so broadcast partner Kevin Kugler took over the questions for Pinter. Only in the final moments of the interview did Hamill muster a few words.

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

Everyone was spent. This was no ordinary Midwest regional victory. This was catharsis. A moment so big that fans young and old were in tears. Gene Keady, the modern patriarch of the program, was a 43-year-old head coach at Western Kentucky the last time Purdue reached the Final Four. The painter, now 53, was 9 years old in 1980. Hamill was not born.

But this was a day that embodied, for two hours, what Purdue basketball is all about. The 72-66 win was tough and tough. Bodies on the ground. Elbows in chests. Rebounding balls require a co-payment. But it was also tactical and rigorous. Read right at the right time. Course correction in timeouts.

Basketball, well designed.

Exactly what the painter tried to show for a long time.

The painter will then say: “If you can combine skill and competitive spirit together.” “Those two qualities together is magic, man.”

Sunday's chemistry began when the painter in the locker room before the game delivered this final message: “Up to 10 or under 10, I don't care. Just keep going. Score the ball. And make sure you have fun.”

The theory was immediately tested. Tennessee's Dalton Knecht is a first-team All-American because he hits shots that few others can, kills fools with a deep bag of tricks, and isn't held back by his conscience. Fifteen minutes into Sunday's game, everything was crystal clear. Knecht made six of his first nine shots, including all four three-point attempts, and scored 16 early points. When Painter saw the clock at 5:11 and his team on the wrong end of a 15-2 run, suddenly trailing 32-21, Painter called timeout.

As the teams walked off the floor into their respective huddles, Knecht was met with chest bumps from every teammate. Then he stared at the rows and rows of Volunteers fans behind the bench and declared: “This is my game!”

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Knecht's clean look was coming, in part, because he was checked by Purdue's 6-foot guard Braden Smith. Purdue needed to defend the Vols star more physically, so it assigned punter Lance Jones to stalk and harass Knecht. Jones is not much taller than Smith, but he is older, stronger and more physical.

What needs to be said was said at this gathering.

“It completely changed the game,” Hammel said of that timeout. “I don't know what (the painter) said, but if you can bottle that, you can sell it for a lot of money.”

It turns out, according to Purdue's director of basketball operations, Elliot Bloom, that the painter wasn't the only one talking. Zach Eddy had a message, and yes, when 7-foot-4, 300-pound Zach Eddy speaks, everyone listens. “We're not tired,” Eddie shouted. “They're tired. Let's go!”

Purdue outscored Tennessee 15-2 to end the half. Knecht went 1-of-5 down the stretch, scoring only on a dunk run. It's hard to score when he's claustrophobic, and Lance Jones puts him in a crowded elevator.

Knecht was amazing, but switching Painter made a huge difference. The soon-to-be NBA lottery pick finished with 37 points on 31 shots. He got 2 of 8 in 2 seconds after being introduced to Jones.

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

Lance Jones' defense over Dalton Knecht proved decisive. (Gregory Shamos/Getty Images)

Let's put aside how ridiculous this quote is to point out that no other Tennessee player finished in double figures and the Vols only scored 14 points at the rim. Throughout the match, from behind the microphone, Hamill wondered aloud whether Knecht could actually beat Bordeaux on his own.

Because that's what it was going to take.

Bordeaux, as is often the case, was unimaginably well prepared. Every question had an answer, and on the offensive side, the answer was usually generated from the middle ball screen. Guards Smith and Fletcher Loyer played relentless screens from Eddy, leaving Tennessee constantly calculating between guarding Eddy on the roll, attacking the ballplayer and sending in a help defender. The Choose Your Own Adventure game usually ends badly because Bordeaux enjoys making your own decision and using it against you.

With less than four minutes remaining and Purdue leading 61-60, and Eddy scoring 12 straight points, the Boilers went into their offense to gain a crucial possession. With Loyer and Edey stacked as monitors over the track, Smith drove hard down the right side of the lane. On one island, Tennessee center J.B. Estrella was stuck choosing between giving Smith a clear layup or leaving Eddie. Jumping to block Smith's shot, Estrella could only watch as the ball passed past him and into Eddie's open, waiting hands. The dunk gave Purdue a three-point lead with 3:22 left in the game.

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After missing Knecht 3 on the other end, Smith went to work again. This time, after some sequencing, Eddie went out to the perimeter to screen the ball, pushing Smith to the right side again. This time, with Tennessee's Zachai Ziegler slouching, Smith kicked the ball to the man he left, Jones, who went up for a dagger 3-pointer. Purdue up, 66-60, 2:40 to go.

“Do they want to stay with us when we drive, and we're going to shoot the ball, or stay with Eddie?” Smith said of the confusing Boilers attack. “Pick your poison there.”

Considering Eddie as poison is an interesting intellectual exercise. There is no quick outcome to poisoning. The poisoning operation is properly planned, meticulously managed and ruthlessly effective. In Eddie, the uninitiated see a monster and assume his production is based solely on size and strength. In fact, all his movements are created and calculated from the mind of the beautiful painter.

Against Tennessee, according to an unofficial schedule, Purdue generated 40 post-Eddie touches from offensive sets. This is despite the state of Tennessee doing everything imaginable to block these entry permits. Those 40 touches produced all 13 of Eddie's field goals, the bulk of 15 (!) drawn fouls and six missed shots, while he missed the rest (often recovering the ball).

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

The rest of Eddie's damage came on the glass. To be clear, this was definitely a product of size and strength. Five offensive rebounds, countless tips. Purdue rebounded on about 45 percent of its mistakes. This game ended with the Boilers' worst three-point performance of the season — 3 of 15, 20 percent — that went almost unnoticed thanks to 13 offensive rebounds in a 67-possession game.

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

He also delivered a fitting eulogy. After a foul shot with Purdue taking a late lead and Tennessee looking to extend the game, Eddie walked to the floor with his head hanging down. Teammate Mason Gillis approached from his left and pushed him. Eddie looked at him, shook his head, and just said, “I'm good.”

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On the next play, as the Vols looked to cut Purdue's lead to two or three with less than 40 seconds left, Eddie met Knecht — star against star, alpha against alpha — and blocked the shot and sealed the game.

When the final horn sounded, unsure of what to do, Eddie hung up, stepping in front of Tennessee coach Rick Barnes to hug his head coach. He held on tight. The painter may have had a collapsed lung due to the pressure, but it was worth it.

“I gotta pay him back,” said Eddie, 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 a lot of coaches that ignored me. Name a program, I can name the coach that mentored me.

Tennessee fans will likely bemoan the administration. Understandable. The Vols were called for 25 fouls, compared to 12 for Purdue, while Eddy drew 16 fouls and was called for one foul. His 22 free throw attempts were twice as many as Tennessee shot as a team (11). It was a very similar story when the two teams met earlier this year when Purdue picked up a win at the Maui Invitational.

But Barnes later confirmed that he did not blame the refereeing staff. He said Eddie is unique and very difficult to manage, and what's done is done.

And now Purdue is out of the Final Four in Phoenix. There's not enough time here to count all the tree rings that preceded this, but Hamel is among them and can speak for everyone. All previous boilers. All the greats of the last 44 years — himself, Glenn Robinson, Eaton Moore, Caleb Swanigan, Carsen Edwards, Jaden Ivey — who never made the Final Four. Painter himself played from 1990-93, reaching three NCAA tournaments, before replacing his old coach, Keady, as head coach 19 years ago.

“I've talked to a lot of former players who say, 'Man, when I watch this team, they make me so proud because they're doing it the right way,'” Hammel said.

In another world, it might have been some of those former players who led Purdue to the Final Four. Surely they've all thought about it. Hamill certainly was. He lived most of his adult life resenting the fact that those diabolical injuries not only limited his career, but may have prevented Purdue from reaching that promised land years ago.

“I know what they went through,” Hamill said. “They've been through hell and come out the other side.”

The view is different there

It's very similar to Phoenix.

(Top photo of Zach Eddy hugging Matt Painter: Gregory Shamos/Getty Images)