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After all the agony, Purdue is on the verge of something different

After all the agony, Purdue is on the verge of something different

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 1

DETROIT — With waves of polished excellence on the floor and gales of unearthly noise from the crowd, Purdue returned Friday night to a dreamland doorstep it had reached only thrice before across 44 good yet aching seasons of craving the Final Four. It accessed the verge of that damned-elusive Final Four when it strafed Gonzaga, 80-68, in a Midwest Region semifinal with a towering star, a bustling guard and a supporting cast good enough that it sometimes stars.

Now these latest Boilermakers (32-4) take their fans to that Elite Eight stage that has taunted the program in 1994, 2000 and 2019, years it found the verge but lost to Duke, Wisconsin and Virginia. If it can defeat Tennessee on Sunday here downtown under the NBA title banners and Stanley Cup banners, Purdue will grace a Final Four for the first time since 1980, which would mean it would get to stop at last hearing the words that compose “1980.”

“We’ve had disappointment, and I think anytime you have that you appreciate things a little bit more and your attention to detail is a little better,” said 19th-season coach Matt Painter, whose litany of winces includes an overtime loss in a 2019 South Region final against Virginia, which tied the game on one of the nuttiest plays James Naismith’s invention of a sport ever cooked up.

Now there’s a chance of a soaring appreciation come Sunday all because there was a down-to-earth attention to detail Friday night.

That manifested in the stat that shone most from the box, the 15 assists for sophomore guard Braden Smith, who tends to reside with everyone else in the shadow of 7-foot-4 Zach Edey.

“Braden is the head of the snake, [and] I tell him all the time, we go as he goes,” said Lance Jones, the import from Southern Illinois whose 12 points and three assists mattered as well.

“I’ve never played with anyone who sets me up like that,” said Edey, soon adding, “I don’t think people give him enough credit.”

“A big-time stat,” Painter said of the 15, “especially in a Sweet 16 game.”

The Sweet 16 itself had felled Purdue on eight occasions in the 44 years of want, but it didn’t do so here largely because Edey, the senior from Toronto, has honed his skills yet further in the year since the stultifying loss as a No. 1 seed to No. 16 Fairleigh Dickinson. That, too, showed in the box, in Edey’s 27 points, the pretty little hooks that decorated his 10-for-15 shooting, his 14 rebounds, his alteration of Gonzaga’s shots once Bulldogs ventured in there and the five fouls that glowed off the box for each of Graham Ike and Anton Watson, Gonzaga big men (but not that big) who had helped the team thrive of late as a No. 5 seed reaching the program’s remarkable ninth straight Sweet 16.

Those foul-outs thrilled the traveling Boilermakers crowd and reiterated the nature of the hard, hard puzzle of solving Edey.

“His stamina is something for someone of his size,” Painter said, a further boost coming from the long timeouts of March Madness. Painter wound up saying, “It’s hard with the kind of attention that he gets to kind of understand his surroundings sometimes,” and praising Edey “just keeping his composure with all the physicality.”

Then something else peeked out from the numbers of a night: Purdue’s turnover total, which sat at a harmless nine. That enabled Painter to chime in with the kind of geeky stat that thrills coaches while going unnoticed to audiences critiquing referees. “More than anything,” Painter said, “with this win we’re 26-0 this year when we have 13 or less turnovers.” He said: “Yeah, you just don’t know how the game’s going to flow. You just want to stay on your rules. You just want the functionality of the game. You want to take care of the basketball. You want to rebound the basketball [which Purdue did, 32-25, against an excellent rebounding foe].”

For that part, the Boilermakers looked like a meticulous bunch.

For five minutes midway through the second half, they looked like some great, humming machine.

While three quick scores from Trey Kaufman-Renn helped Purdue come out of a 40-36 halftime lead with upgraded oomph, it was what happened after Gonzaga (27-8) hurried from a 51-42 deficit to a 53-51 cliffhanger that informed everyone in the arena which side would end up the winner and which side would go to the verge.

From the 12:25 mark to the 7:33, the Purdue run went 16-2, and it had Gonzaga misses and barbed-wire Purdue defense, but it had also sheer basketball prowess. “Everybody just started playing,” Edey said. “Everybody started hitting shots.” Soon, the spree had quite a collection: Smith coursing through an open lane for a layup soon after an Edey offensive rebound, a Fletcher Loyer layup when the Boilermakers moved fast and the Bulldogs didn’t set up, an Edey hook with a fine swish, a Smith trip under the basket for a reverse layup he missed but then followed, an Edey free throw, an Edey dunk from Smith (of course) and then, suddenly, a three-point basket from the left side from Camden Heide after Smith hurried him an assist up the side. That made it 67-53, and that made it done, and that made it really, really loud.

“We have an unbelievable fan base,” Smith said, “and when you make plays and you get them involved, I think it makes our jobs a little bit easier.”

Another touch-rich hook from Edey finished off the burst and made it clear that Sunday would bring another chance for the wistful. It would bring along Jones, the energetic guard who played four seasons at Southern Illinois as somewhat more a lead actor. Now he sat on the interview dais of March and said: “I knew when I committed here, I knew what sacrifices I had to make. To be on a team that’s in the Elite Eight currently, I would give up anything, whether that’s scoring or doing whatever I used to do. You know, it’s bigger than me.”

Oh, yes, it is. It’s the Elite Eight. It’s coming again at last. And, even more yearningly for all of life’s Boilermakers, it’s the verge.

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