March Madness: Zach Edey's masterpiece propels Purdue past Dalton Knecht, Tennessee into Final Four

Sunday's Midwest regional final featured two of college basketball's best players in Purdue's Zach Edey and Tennessee's Dalton Knecht.

They did not disappoint.

The All-Americans engaged in an all-time duel in a sizzling showdown with a trip to the Final Four at stake. Edey's Boilermakers ultimately prevailed in a 72-66 thriller to punch Purdue's ticket to next weekend as both players broke the 35-point barrier. Edey led the way with a career game and a historic NCAA tournament performance.

Edey rolls for career-high in 40-16 effort

The matchup of the region's top two seeds was back-and-forth from the opening tip. Tennessee took the early advantage with a 32-21 first-half lead. Purdue responded with a 13-0 run and went into halftime with a 36-34 lead.

Purdue then opened a a 54-46 advantage midway through the second half. Tennessee responded with a 10-2 run capped by a Knecht 3 to tie the game at 56-56. But the last run belonged to Purdue. The Boilermakers took a 68-60 advantage with a 7-0 run late in the second and never relinquished the lead from there.

The Boilermakers leaned on the Edey — their presumptive two-time National Player of the Year — the whole way. He responded with a career-high 40 points and 16 rebounds in the biggest game of his career. He sat just 33 seconds the entire game.

Edey seals win with late block of Knecht

Knecht kept Tennessee close with 37 points on a 6-of-12 effort from 3-point distance. Whenever Purdue pulled away, he found an answer to keep the Volunteers afloat. He was pinpoint from long distance and repeatedly came up with tough transition buckets to keep Tennessee in the game.

But with the game on the line, Edey got the best of the matchup. He scored 14 straight Purdue points late in the second half as the Boilermakers' offense ran almost exclusively through him.

Then, with Purdue leading 69-65 in the final minute of the game, Edey sealed the win on defense. Tennessee had a chance to cut its deficit to one possession. Knecht slipped his defender on a screen, then found Edey guarding him one-on-one as he drove to the bucket.

Knecht went for it. He attacked the basket as his 7-foot-4 defender kept pace. Edey timed his jump perfectly and rejected Knecht's layup attempt. Purdue secured the rebound, and the game was effectively over.

Purdue hit its free throws down the stretch to secure the win. It was a fitting end to one of the all-time great Elite Eight showdowns as Edey came up with the late, critical stop of Tennessee's All-American.

Edey dominant throughout Purdue's redemption run

The win signifies continued redemption for a Purdue team stung last season by one of the biggest upsets in American sports history. Its loss to Fairleigh Dickinson in the opening round marked just the second time ever that a No. 1 seed had fallen to a No. 16 seed in the men's NCAA tournament.

Purdue's responded this tournament on a mission. The Boilermakers rolled to wins by 28 and 39 points in the opening rounds. They then steamrolled a strong Gonzaga team, 80-68, in the Sweet 16. Edey was dominant along the way, posting at least 23 points and 14 rebounds in each win.

But Sunday was his masterpiece. Faced with a showdown against a fellow All-American, Edey played the best game of his career. In the process, he became the first player since Loyola Marymount's Bo Kimble in 1990 to tally 40-plus points and 15-plus rebounds in an NCAA tournament game.

He's also the first player since 1977 to tally 30 points and 15 rebounds in multiple games in a single NCAA tournament. He went for 30 points and 21 rebounds in Purdue's opening-round win over Grambling State.

Edey's message for Rick Barnes

After the game, Edey talked about what the Final Four berth means to him while naming Tennessee coach Rick Barnes.

"There were so many coaches that looked over me," Edey said. "You could name a program, I can name a coach that looked over me. Tennessee — Rick Barnes is a great coach. But he was in a bunch of our practices, looked over me.

"It's kind of been the story of my life. People have doubted me, people have looked past me. Can't do that any more."

Tennessee's vaunted defense was no match

Edey did this against one of the nation's best defenses. Tennessee won the SEC regular season, earned a No. 2 seed and advanced to the Elite Eight on the strength of a defense that ranks third in KenPom's adjusted defensive efficiency.

The Volunteers looked every bit the elite part on Sunday on the perimeter. Purdue entered the game as the nation's best 3-point shooting team, connecting at a 41% success rate. It entered halftime having hit just 1 of 8 attempts. It finished with a tournament-low 3-of-15 (20%) effort from long-distance, meaning that Purdue's offense almost exclusively run through Edey.

The focus on Edey was a formula for success. Like every other Purdue opponent, Tennessee had no one to match Edey's hulking frame. The best the Vols could do was throw double- and triple-teams his way and hope. There was no hope on Sunday as Edey shot 13 of 21 from the floor and made it to the line for 22 free throw attempts. He hit 14.

Now Purdue's back in the Final Four for the first time since 1980. It's two wins away from complete redemption after last season's historic exit.