April 15, 2024

Purdue’s Zach Edey wins battle vs. Tennessee’s Dalton Knecht in Elite Eight showdown of top players


DETROIT — When Zach Edey airballed a free throw with 42 seconds remaining, a nervous energy began percolating inside Little Caesars Arena. Purdue and its massive contingent of fans were closing in on their first Final Four appearance since 1980, but Edey’s consecutive misses at the line flung the door open for Tennessee.

It was hard to blame the Boilermakers faithful for their anxiety as Dalton Knecht began knifing toward the basket with a chance to cut Purdue’s five-point lead back to one possession. Knecht had already scored 37 points for Tennessee to will the Volunteers within striking distance of their first-ever Final Four.

Then, in a moment of fate, the two All-Americans met near the rim. In a redemptive sequence to highlight a redemptive season, Edey turned Purdue’s tension into triumph. The 7-foot-4 superstar swatted Knecht’s layup attempt without sending it out of bounds.

Purdue forward Mason Gillis collected the rebound and began a game of hot potato as the Boilermakers ran critical seconds off the clock before Tennessee was finally able to foul. The play sealed a 72-66 Elite Eight victory for Purdue, and it ended any lingering debate over who is the best player in college basketball.

Knecht made a compelling case this season to keep Edey from repeating as the reigning national player of the year as he earned SEC Player of the Year honors with an endless cascade of offensive barrages. 

Perhaps if the Volunteers could have produced an answer for Edey on Sunday, Knecht’s monster game against the Boilermakers would have gotten him back in the running. But it’s Edey’s era, and what he did to Tennessee cemented his place not only as the greatest player of the past two years but as one of the best to ever play college basketball.

The 7-foot-4 senior finished with a career-high 40 points and grabbed 16 rebounds against the Volunteers. He produced  just one block, but it couldn’t have come at a better time.

“Obviously I missed that free throw before,” Edey said. “I was just trying to get back and trying to make my presence felt on the defensive end, kind of make up for it.”

Edey and Purdue have been trying to make up for something all season. The humiliation of last year’s first round NCAA Tournament loss to No. 16 seed FDU made the Boilermakers a laughingstock. They and their behemoth center lost to the shortest team in college basketball as the Boilermakers became just the second No. 1 seed to ever fall against a No. 16 seed.

Making the Final Four was arguably the minimum level of 2024 NCAA Tournament success needed to atone for last year’s historic loss. The quest began with relative ease as the Boilermakers beat their first three foes by double-digits. But none of the first three opponents had a player like Knecht.

Tennessee’s 6-foot-6 marksman hit the second of two straight 3-pointers with 5:11 remaining in the first half to put the Volunteers ahead 32-21. It looked like it might be the Volunteers – not Purdue – enjoying a Final Four breakthrough.

“He was cooking,” said Purdue guard Lance Jones, who was one of several players tasked with defending Knecht at various moments.

Purdue coach Matt Painter called a timeout to settle his team down and reestablish his own star. Purdue closed the half on a 15-2 run that featured nine points from Edey. At halftime, the Boilermakers led 36-34 and Edey led Knecht 19-18.

“It’s a game of runs,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “We had one, they made one. I thought we had a couple shots that weren’t good. It wasn’t because of lack of effort. But they’re a terrific basketball team. When you lose to a Purdue or a Tennessee, I’m not sure you can say anything particularly went wrong.”

If there’s anything that went wrong for the Volunteers, it happened years ago, and it happened to a lot of teams and coaches. And it’s what drove Edey during the game of his career.

“There were so many coaches that looked over me,” Edey said. “You could name a program and I could name a coach that looked over me. Tennessee, Rick Barnes is a great coach, but he was at our practice, looked over me. It’s kind of been the story of my life. People have doubted me. People looked past me. Can’t do that anymore.”

Looking over Edey now is impossible without a ladder, and no matter who the Volunteers threw at him, he found a way to own the paint. The first victim was Tennessee starting center Jonas Aidoo. He proved ineffective and exited before the first media timeout.

Replacement Tobe Awaka appeared eager for the challenge but perhaps a little too eager. He fouled out in just 13 minutes of action.

Little-used freshman J.P. Estrella even got a crack at Edey, logging a career-high 15 minutes. To no avail — stopping him was impossible.

“It’s not just what he does when he posts up, the way he really gets your defense distorted and everything,” Barnes said. “But it’s the way their team knows how to get it to him, different angles, different times.”

Purdue tied a season-low for made 3-pointers, going 3 of 15 from beyond the arc, which was a season-worst in terms of 3-point shooting percentage. It was the Boilermakers’ worst 3-point shooting percentage in a game since the loss to FDU. 

It was contrasted by Tennessee’s 11 of 26 shooting effort from 3-point range with Knecht’s 6-of-12 mark highlighting the effort. The Volunteers entered at 11-1 this season when making 11 or more long-range shots.

But just as Purdue’s supporting cast struggled, so did Tennessee’s. No one except Knecht reached double figures for the Volunteers.

It came down to two superstars, two All-Americans, two of the best to ever wear the uniforms of their respective schools. And when they met at the rim with the game hanging in the balance, it was Edey who won out over Knecht.

“I think he’s probably the second-best player in the country,” Purdue guard Cam Heide said. “I think Zach is the best player in the country. Both players are incredible, and I think that showed on one of the biggest stages in college basketball today.”





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