Detroit Free Press

What we will remember from a historic weekend at Little Caesars Arena

- March Madness Insider

There will be a day where the same sounds that echoed through Little Caesars Arena on Easter Sunday 2024 will be for a team from this town.

But this time, the raucous environmen­t in downtown Detroit was for Purdue, the 1-seed in the Midwest region of the NCAA tournament, which outlasted 2-seed Tennessee, 72-66, to punch a ticket to its first Final Four since 1980.

People around these parts don't like the Boilermake­rs much, its either all Wolverines or all Spartans, but peel back the bias about the program that had its crowning achievemen­t Sunday afternoon and it's quite easy to see how relatable it really was.

Purdue had been bounced each of the past three seasons by a double digit seed; the 13seed North Texas in overtime in 2021, 15-seed St. Peters in 2022 and 16-seed Farleigh Dickinson in 2023. Many called for coach Matt Painter's job. He has been in charge for 19 seasons since he took over for the legendary Gene Keady who had 25-year run of his own from 19802005.

Keady, who was on hand Sunday and received an ear-shattering roar when he was shown on the big screen, and Painter had combined for more than 930 wins at Purdue across the better part of five decades, but hadn't cut down a net to reach the Final Four until Sunday. Think about that.

"We had to sit in it, we had to take it," Painter said Sunday. "Sometimes when you sit in it, when you're honest with yourself and you take it, some great things can happen."

Of course, it wasn't just the coaches who sat in it, but the players who stayed when they could have left, in an era where that's exactly what so many are doing. Last year's guards, Fletcher Loyer and Braden Smith, evolved from freshmen with fear to sophomores with a spark. Power forwards Trey Kaufman-Renn and Mason Gillis provided 40 combined gritty minutes and Lance Jones, the transfer from Southern Illinois, put the rotation over the top, which included a game-changing 3-pointer to go up 66-60 with less than three minutes to play.

However of anybody on the court Sunday, there's nobody as responsibl­e for the win as the soon to be two-time national player of the year, whose number is already retired, Zach Edey.

The 7-foot-4, 300-pound center scored 40 points and grabbed 16 rebounds as he turned a season of disdain against him — from those who say he's only good because he's big, to those who claim he gets the benefit of the whistle — into his own motivation.

"They thought they knew what we had in our hearts," yelled Edey about naysayers in a postgame interview with CBS in the immediate moments afterward. "I promise you they didn't. We're (expletive) winners. It's what we do."

The scenes around the court, somehow, may have been even better. A young boy who couldn't be more than seven stood on what appeared to be his father's shoulders and jumped up and down, as dad wiped tears with one hand and held onto the boy's legs for stability.

On the far side of press row, one of the Boilermake­rs all-time greats, Robbie Hummel, also broke down in tears almost as soon as the final buzzer sounded. Various staffers made their way to him for hugs, before he interviewe­d his own college coach, Painter, on the moment the two nearly achieved in their own right more than a decade ago.

"Unbelievab­le," Hummel said to himself as he looked straight at the ceiling, then down at his lap, before he put his head in hands and wiped his brow.

With their logo plastered on the jumbotron above, the Boilermake­rs players, coaches and staffers made their way onto the makeshift risers at mid-court of LCA, where gold and black confetti fell as they held up four fingers and posed for pictures.

As Loyer stepped down, he pounded his chest and screamed at the crowd "we got two more!"

But already, the Boilermake­rs got two of something else: Two postseason wins at LCA over the weekend, which sadly is now two more than both teams who have called the building home since 2017. The Pistons' last playoff series win was May 2008, the Red Wings' was May of 2013. (The beleaguere­d Pistons have lost an NBA-record 14 straight postseason games.)

This means nothing to Purdue, but everything to the fans of those Detroit teams.

It has been quite a drought, but those fans will have their own Easter Sunday feeling someday, and when they do, it feels likely the young man whose jersey was split in half down the middle — it was a Jaden Ivey custom, onehalf that represente­d his playing days in West Lafayette, the other for his current team in Detroit — will once again be yelling for joy.

 ?? JUNFU HAN/DETROIT FREE PRESS ?? Purdue coach Matt Painter reacts to a play against Tennessee during the second half of the Elite 8 game at Little Caesars Arena on Sunday.
JUNFU HAN/DETROIT FREE PRESS Purdue coach Matt Painter reacts to a play against Tennessee during the second half of the Elite 8 game at Little Caesars Arena on Sunday.
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