Sports Journalism Blog

By William Jones | @WillWUmoney

Sports Capital Journalism Program

GLENDALE, Ariz. – The Purdue Boilermakers are one game away from their first NCAA men’s basketball championship.

In a 63-50 semifinal victory, the Boilermakers pushed past the North Carolina State Wolfpack to reach their first championship game in 55 years. The Boilermakers (34-4) will meet the UConn Huskies on Monday night at State Farm Stadium. N.C. State (26-15) was held to a season-low of 50 points.

For the second time in five tournaments, a team that had lost to a No. 16 seed advanced to the national title game. Purdue hopes to join the 2019 Virginia Cavaliers as a redemptive national champion. The Boilermakers have won 22 straight games against power conference or nationally-ranked teams outside of the Big Ten, which ties the record streak of the 1971-74 UCLA Bruins.

The Boilermakers were led once more by 7-foot-4 senior Zach Edey, whose 20 points and 12 rebounds continued an historic tournament streak. Edey’s sixth straight game with at least 20 points and 10 rebounds became the longest streak in the NCAA tournament since Elvin Hayes of Houston in 1967 and 1968. His 12 rebounds gave Edey a career total of 1,311, second-most in Big Ten history.

For just the second game this season, Purdue coach Matt Painter chose to play Edey for 40 minutes. He played 42 minutes in a victory over Northwestern on January 31.

Edey was asked he had expected to play for that long.

“I don’t know if I expected it, but I was ready for it,” he said. “I’m ready for it every game. Like I’ve said all weekend now, no one on the team wants to come out of the game. Obviously if Paint subs us, we’re going to sub. You want to play every minute of the game, every second of the game. I’m never going to complain about Paint leaving me on the floor.”

Graduate guard Lance Jones scored 14 points including four 3-point baskets, and sophomore guard Fletcher Loyer scored 11 points.

At the end of the game, while the Purdue fans in the crowd of 74,720 at State Farm Stadium roared, Edey just walked silently toward the handshake line, nodding again and again as he did.

Despite the big moment of the Boilermakers making it to the championship game, the reaction of the locker room was mixed. It was clear that the mindset of the team is winning it all.

“We have bigger goals than just making it to the national championship,” freshman forward Camden Heide said. “One thing we talked about early in the year is to make it to the Final Four, but everyone was like we don’t just want to make it to the Final Four, we want to win a National Championship.”

Heide’s assessment of the mentality of the team’s win translated to their efforts against the Wolfpack.

N.C. State made just 28.6% of its second-half shots and went 2-for-9 from behind the 3-point line. Center DJ Horne scored 20 points but made eight of 21 shots in 27 minutes. Horne was charged with his third foul with 18:28 to play.

Creating defensive pressure and having a tough mindset was a key that Purdue sophomore forward Trey Kaufman-Renn felt disrupted the Wolfpack’s rhythm offensively.

“Great scout, we tried to shut down DJ (Burns) as much as possible,” Kaufman-Renn said. “They’ve got a really good team and we just followed our assignments.”

The Wolfpack had been one of the biggest surprises of the tournament, an 11th-seeded team that reached the Final Four after upsetting sixth-seeded Texas Tech and second-seeded Marquette.

For the N.C. State program, the tournament run could be a moment that could move the program forward in future basketball seasons. “I mean, the way this story was written was unbelievable because in order to win any championships, you have highs and lows,” said Wolfpack coach Kevin Keatts. “We started the season with great highs. In the middle, there were some lows, but equally then some highs…

“How many people do you think to finish their run at 9-1, winning nine games, then obviously losing the last one?”

N.C. State junior forward Ben Middlebrooks was emotional about the loss but felt the tournament success could be a confidence booster.

“Honestly I feel like we should come back with a level of confidence that I don’t think we had asserted this year,” Middlebrooks says. “We had a rough run in the ACC scene and the regular season. To kind of come out next year and know that we are this level team, and we can play at this level.”

On Monday night, the Boilermakers will play for the school’s first national basketball championship since the 1999 Purdue women’s team defeated Duke, 62-45.

“This is what we have been working all year,” said senior forward Mason Gillis. “Finally we are here. We’ve done the work, (and) made it this far. We have more work to do and we’ll prepare by watching the game tonight, get our sleep, get our feet up, get dinner, and be ready Monday.”

Loyer was more direct. “We’re going to keep fighting,” he said. “We’ve got 40 more minutes until we’re national champs.”