How Matt Painter's chess moves and Zach Eddy's relentlessness lead Purdue to the Final Four

DETROIT — Before the nets came down on a day few will forget, Matt Painter walked across the court and extended his hand. He needs to see one of his own. For the previous two hours, Robbie Hummel had done his worst as a radio analyst at Westwood One, with no bias, no loyalty, but now the former Boilermaker star held his old coach's hand. outside. Big, real, hot tears. pure type. That's because Hummel knows more than anyone that Purdue's defeat of Tennessee this Sunday in Detroit and a berth in the program's first Final Four in 44 years will mean that.

Hummel couldn't collect himself, so broadcast partner Kevin Kugler handled questions for Painter. Only in the hazy moments of the interview did Hummel muster a few words.

“We,” he said of himself and everyone wearing a Purdue jersey, “are very proud of you.”

All were spent. This was no ordinary Midwest Regional win. It's catharsis. A moment big enough to bring tears to the eyes of fans young and old alike. The program's modern patriarch, Gene Keady, was the 43-year-old head coach at Western Kentucky, the last time Purdue made the Final Four. Painter, now 53, was 9 in 1980. Hummel was not born.

But this day, for two hours, epitomized what Purdue basketball is all about. The 72-66 victory was ruthless and hard-fought. Bodies on the ground. Elbows to chest. Rebounds requiring co-payments. But it was tactical and precise. The right one reads at the right time. Course revision on deadline.

Basketball, well engineered.

Precisely what the painter has been trying to convey for so long.

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

Sunday's alchemy began when Painter delivered this final message in the pregame locker room: “Up 10, or down 10, I don't care. Keep going. Hit the ball. Make sure you're having fun.”

The theory was immediately tested. Tennessee's Dalton Knecht is a first-time All-American because he gets off shots like few others can, kills fools with deep tricks and is unhindered by conscience. Fifteen minutes into Sunday's game, it was on full display. Knecht hit six of his first nine shots, including four 3-point attempts, and scored 16 early points. With 5:11 on the clock and his team on the wrong end of a 15-2 run, suddenly trailing 32-21, Painter called timeout.

As the teams left the floor for their respective shakedowns, Neckt was met with chest bumps by each teammate. Then he stared at the rows and rows of Volunteer fans behind the bench and said, “This is my game!” announced that

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Knecht's clean look came in part because he was checked by 6-foot Purdue guard Braden Smith. Purdue needed to physically defend the Walls star, so Painter tasked Lance Jones with chasing and harassing Knecht. Jones is not taller than Smith, but he is older, stronger and more physically fit.

He said what needed to be said in that commotion.

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

According to Purdue's 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,” shouted Ede. “They're tired. Let's go!”

Purdue outshot Tennessee 15-2. Knecht went 1-for-5, scoring only one runout dunk. Difficult to score while suffering from claustrophobia, Lance Jones puts him in a crowded elevator.

Knecht was incredulous, but the change of painter made a difference. The soon-to-be NBA lottery pick finished with 37 points on 31 shots. He went 2-for-8 on 2 seconds after making his debut for Jones.

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


Lance Jones' defense on Dalton Neck is key. (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 were only 14 points behind the margin. All game, from behind the microphone, Hummel wondered aloud if Knecht could actually beat Purdue by himself.

Because that's all it took.

Purdue is, as it often is, unimaginably well-prepared. Every question had an answer, and on the offensive end, it was usually born from a middle ball screen. Guards Smith and Fletcher played relentless screens off the lower eddy, as Tennessee constantly calculated between keeping the eddy on the roll, attacking the baller and passing the help-guard. Choose Your Own Adventure games usually end badly because Purdue delights in taking your decision and using it against you.

With Purdue leading 61-60 with less than four minutes left, and Eddy scoring 12 straight points, the Boilermakers went into their offense for a crucial possession. Smith drove hard on the right side of the lane as Lauer and Eddy lined up theatrically across the lane. On an island, Tennessee center JP Estrella was torn between giving Smith a clear setup or leaving Eddy behind. Estrella jumped to block Smith's shot, waiting for Eddie's hands and only to watch as the ball went in front of him in the open. The dunk gave Purdue a three-point lead with 3:22 left.

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Following a missed Knecht 3 at the other end, Smith went back to work. This time, after a few sequences, Eddy went out to the perimeter for a ball screen, pushing Smith back down the right sideline. This time, as Tennessee's Zakai Zeichler dunked, Smith kicked the ball as he left it, and Jones, who stepped in for a 3-pointer. Purdue up, 66-60, 2:40 to go.

“Do they want to stay with us when we're driving, should we shoot the layup or stay with (ED)?” Smith said of the Boilers' chaotic attack. “Take your poison there.”

It's an interesting thought exercise to think of ED as a poison. Poisoning has no immediate effect. A perfect poison is planned, meticulously administered and ruthlessly effective. In Edey, the unknown sees a monster and assumes his production is based solely on size and power. In fact, his every movement is created and calculated from the painter's beautiful mind.

Against Tennessee, according to an unofficial chart, Purdue made 40 post touches for Eddy in offensive sets. This is despite Tennessee doing everything imaginable to prevent such entry passes. Those 40 touches produced all 13 of Eddie's field goals, most of his 15(!) fouls were draws and six missed shots, while he got off the others (mostly getting the ball back).

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

The rest of Ede's damage came in the glass. This, to be clear, is purely a product of size and power. Five offensive rebounds, countless tip-outs. Purdue rebounded nearly 45 percent of its misses. The game ended with the Boilermakers' worst 3-pointing performance of the season — 3-of-15, 20 percent — and 13 offensive rebounds in a 67-possession game that went almost unnoticed.

Eddie, in the end, lived up to his legend. In his 136th game at Purdue and the program's biggest game 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 for 39 minutes and 27 seconds.

He also paid due tribute. After Purdue took a foul shot late in the air and Tennessee looked to extend the game, Eddy walked the floor with his head down. Teammate Mason Gillis came to the left and gave a nudge. Ete looked at him, shook his head, and said, “I'm fine.”

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On the next play, with the Vols looking to cut Purdue's lead to two or three with less than 40 seconds left, Eddie Knecht met – Star v. Starr, Alpha v. Alba – and put away the shot to seal the game.

When the final horn sounded, not knowing what else to do, Eddy cut the line to hug his head coach in front of Tennessee coach Rick Barnes. He held tight. The painter may have collapsed lungs from such pressure, but it was worth it.

“I pay him back,” said Eddy, whose high school scholarship list was pretty light for a player currently awaiting national player honors in his sophomore year. “There were so many coaches that overlooked me. Name a program, I can name one coach that looked at me.

Tennessee fans will mourn the referee. understand The Vols were called for 25 fouls, while Eddy drew 16 and was called once, compared to Purdue's 12 fouls. His 22 free-throw attempts were more than double what Tennessee made as a team (11). It was a very similar story when the two teams met earlier this year when Purdue won the Maui Invitational.

Barnes, however, later insisted that he did not blame the officer. Edey, he said, was both unique and very difficult to officiate, and what was done, was done.

Now Purdue Phoenix is ​​out of the Final Four. There is not enough time here to enumerate all the rings in the preceding tree, but Hummel is one of them and can speak for them all. All former boilers. All the great players of the past 44 years — he, Glenn Robinson, E'Dwan Moore, Caleb Swanigan, Carson Edwards, Jaden Ivey — haven't made it to the Final Four. Painter, himself, played from 1990-93, reaching three NCAA Tournaments, then replaced his old coach Keady as head coach 19 years ago.

“I've talked to a lot of former guys and, man, when I look at this team, they make me so proud because they're doing it the right way,” Hummel said.

In another universe, there might have been some of the former players who led Purdue to the Final Four. Surely they've all thought about it. Hummel certainly had. He lived most of his adult life with those gruesome injuries that not only limited his career, but may have prevented Purdue from reaching this promised land years earlier.

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

There the view is different.

It looks like a terrible phoenix.

(Top photo of Zack Eddy hugging Matt Painter: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

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