Purdue joined Virginia in ignominy. Now it’s near the same mountaintop.

Purdue joined Virginia in ignominy. Now it’s near the same mountaintop.

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 3

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Purdue men’s basketball coach Matt Painter was at his lowest professional moment last season when the Boilermakers became the second top seed to lose to a No. 16 seed in the NCAA tournament. An interaction with the coach of the first program to bear that ignominy provided hope amid the darkness.

One day after Purdue got bounced in last year’s round of 64, Virginia Coach Tony Bennett reached out to Painter, who was still processing a 63-58 loss to Fairleigh Dickinson that came five years after the Cavaliers found themselves on the wrong end of history when they lost to No. 16 Maryland Baltimore County, 74-54, in the 2018 tournament.

The Cavaliers famously recovered the next season to win the national championship. Purdue (34-4), again a No. 1 seed, is one victory from following the same path. Top-seeded Connecticut (36-3), the reigning national champion, is the final hurdle Monday night at State Farm Stadium in the Boilermakers’ quest for the program’s first NCAA tournament title.

“I think it’s actually an accurate narrative,” Painter said Sunday. “Sometimes people will pick up narratives out of thin air instead of doing their work. This is actually the right narrative. The thing I grab from it more than anything is just the humility of Tony Bennett and how he handled it with class.”

During Virginia’s championship run in 2019, Painter and Bennett crossed paths in the South Region final in Louisville, producing one of the more memorable NCAA tournament games in recent history. The Boilermakers were an instant from dispatching Virginia in regulation until Cavaliers forward Mamadi Diakite sank a jumper at the buzzer to force overtime.

Virginia went on to win, 80-75, to advance to the Final Four in Minneapolis, where the Cavaliers outlasted Auburn, 63-62, in the national semifinals and required overtime to beat Texas Tech, 85-77, in the title game. In the aftermath of the remarkable about-face, Bennett’s humble demeanor never wavered.

Painter has conducted himself in a similar manner during the Boilermakers’ journey to redemption, which has included 11 wins in their past 12 games. Their most recent victory came Saturday, when they dispatched No. 11 seed North Carolina State, 63-50, in a national semifinal, ending the Wolfpack’s improbable postseason run.

It’s no wonder Painter and Bennett have remained close friends, given not only their membership in an exclusive club as coaches of a No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 but also how they direct their respective programs and comport themselves in understated fashion.

“You’re at a low when you have tough losses like that,” Painter said. “For him to think of us and to think of me and to reach out to me on that day, that was great, so from a humility standpoint, there are some good people out there that are thinking about others even when they’re down and out. Once again, [coaching is] not who you are, right? It’s what you do for a living. It means a whole lot, but it’s not who you are. Try to keep that in perspective.”

The Boilermakers have reached this point thanks in large part to Painter building from within during a time when the transfer portal can provide a quick fix. The starting backcourt of Fletcher Loyer and Braden Smith, for instance, is home grown, with each player arriving in West Lafayette after playing high school basketball in Indiana.

Then there’s Zach Edey, an outlier in an era of one-and-done stars. The two-time national player of the year has stayed at Purdue for four seasons, coming back this time to pursue the elusive NCAA tournament title rather than declaring for the NBA draft and the millions of dollars he stands to pocket as a professional.

Edey is the only player in NCAA tournament history to have six consecutive games with at least 20 points and 10 rebounds. The 7-foot-4 center finished with 20 points, 12 rebounds, four assists and two blocks against the Wolfpack and is averaging 28 points this NCAA tournament.

“The reason I came back is playing games like this,” Edey said. “The reason I’m playing college basketball for four years, to finally get this game, [is] big time. We obviously have got to keep going and keep playing. These are the games you can come back for. These are the games you work and practice every day for.”

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