Purdue’s cathartic Elite Eight win over Tennessee was 44 years in the making

DETROIT — Before the nets came down on a day few will forget, Matt Painter walked across the court and extended a hand. He needed to see one of his own. Robbie Hummel had done his damnedest for the previous two hours to play it down the middle, with no bias, no allegiance, as a radio analyst for Westwood One, but now the former Boilermaker star clasped the hand of his old coach and it all came out. Big, real, hot tears. The purest kind. Because Hummel knows perhaps more than anyone else what it meant for Purdue to beat Tennessee on this Sunday in Detroit and book a spot in the program’s first Final Four in 44 years.

Hummel could hardly collect himself, so broadcast partner Kevin Kugler handled the questions for Painter. Only in the waning moments of the interview did Hummel muster a few words.

“We,” he said of himself and everyone else who has worn a Purdue jersey, “are so proud of you.”

Everyone was spent. This was no ordinary Midwest Regional victory. This was catharsis. A moment so large that fans young and old brushed away tears. Gene Keady, the program’s modern patriarch, was a 43-year-old head coach at Western Kentucky the last time Purdue reached a Final Four. Painter, now 53, was 9 years old in 1980. Hummel wasn’t born.

But this was a day that, for two hours, embodied what Purdue basketball is. A 72-66 win was ruthless and tough. Bodies on the floor. Elbows in chests. Rebounds requiring co-pays. But it was also tactical and exacting. The right reads at the right time. Course correction in timeouts.

Basketball, well-engineered.

Exactly what Painter has tried to manifest for so long.

“If you can put skill and competitive spirit together,” Painter would say afterward. “Those two qualities together is magic, man.”

Sunday’s alchemy began with Painter in the pregame locker room delivering this final message: “Up 10, or down 10, I don’t care. Just keep going. Score the ball. And make sure you have f—ing fun.”

The theory was promptly tested. Tennessee’s Dalton Knecht is a first-team All-American because he gets off shots few others can, kills fools with a deep bag of tricks and is unhindered by conscience. Fifteen minutes into Sunday’s game, it was all on full display. Knecht made six of his first nine shots, including all four 3-point attempts, and scored 16 early points. Seeing 5:11 on the clock and his team on the wrong end of a 15-2 run, and suddenly trailing 32-21, Painter called timeout.

As the teams exited the floor to their respective huddles, Knecht was met with chest bumps by every teammate. He then stared up into the rows and rows of Volunteers fans behind the bench and declared: “This is my f—ing game!”

Knecht’s clean looks were coming, in part, because he was being checked by 6-foot Purdue guard Braden Smith. Purdue needed to defend the Vols star more physically, so Painter tasked Lance Jones with chasing and harassing Knecht. Jones isn’t much taller than Smith, but he’s older, stronger and more physical.

What needed to be said was said in that huddle.

“Totally changed the game,” Hummel said of that timeout. “I don’t know what (Painter) said, but if you could bottle that, you could…

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