Knecht’s 37 points for Vols not enough to stop Edey, Purdue

Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee's Dalton Knecht scored 37 points Sunday afternoon and was 6-of-12 from 3-point range, but it wasn't enough in a 72-66 loss to Purdue in the NCAA tournament's Elite Eight.
Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee's Dalton Knecht scored 37 points Sunday afternoon and was 6-of-12 from 3-point range, but it wasn't enough in a 72-66 loss to Purdue in the NCAA tournament's Elite Eight.

The Tennessee Volunteers had their aspirations of a first Final Four in program history slammed by a 7-foot-4, 300-pound roadblock.

Purdue senior center Zach Edey scored a career-high 40 points and racked up 16 rebounds Sunday afternoon as the Boilermakers turned back Tennessee 72-66 for the NCAA tournament’s Midwest Region championship inside Detroit’s Little Caesars Arena. Edey’s biggest play, however, wasn’t a basket or a rebound but a block of a Dalton Knecht layup with 34 seconds remaining.

That change in possession led to a pair of Fletcher Loyer free throws with 22 seconds left that extended Purdue’s lead to 71-64.

“I thought our guys really put up a battle,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said afterward in a news conference. “We were playing against a guy who has a unique game certainly — not just what he does when he posts up or the way he really gets your defense distorted and everything, but the way their team knows how to get it to him through different angles at different times.”

The Boilermakers, who were the region’s top seed, will move on to Glendale, Arizona, with a 33-4 record, and face North Carolina State in Saturday’s national semifinals. The Wolfpack, an 11 seed, beat Duke later Sunday in Dallas to win the South Region.

The second-seeded Vols concluded their memorable season at 27-9. Tennessee won its first outright Southeastern Conference regular-season championship in 16 years and advanced to the Elite Eight for only the second time.

Knecht, the SEC player of the year, was brilliant in his finale. The transfer from Northern Colorado tallied 37 points and was 6-of-12 from 3-point range.

“I don’t think I put the team on my back,” Knecht said. “I think all of us carried each other, and I think every single one of us did what we needed to do. At the end of the day, they were just the better team.

“I just love these guys, and I wish we could have one more game, but I’m just thankful for all these guys for accepting me for my one year here, as well as the coaching staff.”

A Knecht 3-pointer with 7:02 remaining pulled Tennessee into a 56-56 tie, but Vols sophomore forward Tobe Awaka picked up his fifth foul with 4:42 to play. Tennessee junior forward Jonas Aidoo, who made his 36th start of the season, struggled against Edey, so Barnes went with 6-11, 241-pound freshman J.P. Estrella to take on the Boilermakers giant in crunch time.

Edey drew 16 fouls and attempted 22 free throws, twice as many as Tennessee took as a team.

“I think it’s hard for officials, because there are not many guys like that,” Barnes said. “Whether you stay in the lane three seconds or you don’t, if you don’t ever get out, it really distorts everything. I’m not saying he did or he didn’t, but he’s a difficult guy to officiate, I can tell you that.”

Tennessee made 11 3-pointers compared to just three by Purdue, but Lance Jones connected from long range with 2:43 remaining to put the Boilermakers up by multiple scores the rest of the way at 66-60. A pair of Edey free throws with 1:46 left gave Purdue its biggest lead at 68-60.

No other Vols reached double figures, with Zakai Zeigler scoring nine and Josiah-Jordan James eight. Loyer was next in line for Purdue with 14 points.

Knecht hit 3-pointers on consecutive possessions to stake Tennessee to a 17-12 lead six minutes into the game. The Vols then went cold for more than five minutes as Purdue used a 7-0 run to take a 19-17 advantage, but James and Zeigler made 3-pointers on consecutive trips down the floor to put the Vols back up 23-19.

Soon it was time for more Knecht, as he produced two additional 3-pointers to extend Tennessee’s lead to 32-21 and force Boilermakers coach Matt Painter into using a timeout at the 5:11 mark of the half. Knecht made his first four attempts from long range before finally missing.

“He’s an unbelievable player, and he showed it tonight,” Purdue guard Braden Smith said. “When somebody shoots the ball like that, there is just not a whole lot you can do. We let him loose a couple times, so he was able to make those plays and make shots and kind of punish us from the 3-point line.”

Purdue responded with a 13-0 run to grab a 34-32 lead and took a 36-34 advantage into halftime. Edey and Knecht each had more than half of his team’s points at the break, with Edey racking up 19 to go along with 10 rebounds and with Knecht tallying 18.

The Boilermakers held the halftime advantage despite a 1-of-8 showing from 3-point range, while Tennessee was 7-of-13.

Edey drew the third fouls on Aidoo and Awaka in the early stages of the second half and then the fourth on Awaka with 14:03 to play. Purdue steadily built a 47-41 lead but continued to stay frigid from 3-point range, so a Jordan Gainey 3 and a Zeigler layup quickly got the Vols within 47-46.

“When you lose to a Purdue or to a Tennessee, I’m not sure you can say anything particularly went wrong,” Barnes said. “I know every guy out there wanted to win. There is going to be a winner, and there’s going to be a loser.

“We’ll look back, and we’ll say that we could have done this or could have done that, but we didn’t. We fought, though.”

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.

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