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Final Four: Boilers barrel past NC State to title game

No matter how badly the sea of red in State Farm Stadium wanted to see a happy ending to Cinderella’s sequel, Purdue (34-4) played Lady Tremaine. Just one season after an embarrassing first-round exit, the Boilers closed the curtains on NC State’s (26-15) feel-good show, leading wire-to-wire to take the first semifinal, 63-50.

“It was one of those grinder-type games where we made a few more shots, a few more threes,” Purdue head coach Matt Painter said. “Thought we were very competitive, played hard.”

As expected, the dominant force of Purdue imposed their will on NC State from the opening tip. By the 10-minute mark of the front 20, the senior center had already scored ten times, building the Boilers lead to 23-13. Adjusting its defense to force kickouts, Kevin Keatts’s squad picked at Matt Painter’s biggest weakness: turnovers.

“I think we're 27-0 with 13 turnovers or less,” Painter said on Friday. “I think we're 6-4 with 14 to 17 turnovers.” 

After Purdue took a 28-16 lead, the most significant deficit NC State had faced in their nine-game win streak, the Wolfpack zeroed in on the inside defensively and compiled nine total first-half turnovers as a result. Keeping Edey and Purdue off the free-throw line (four first-half attempts), State clawed back within three, with DJ Horne’s 13 points leading the way. The ultimate difference of the first half would come from beyond the arc. An average-at-best team of sharpshooters, the ‘Pack went 3-10 from deep in the first, whereas Purdue had cashed five triples, including Fletcher Loyer’s momentum-grabbing swish with seconds to go before halftime. Doubling their lead at the break, Painter saw Loyer’s shot as a game-changing play that would set the tone for the second half.

Continuing its streak of turnovers into the early second half, Purdue made up for it with a string of defensive stops. Despite multiple scoring droughts amounting to just 28 second-half points for the Boilers, State couldn’t make the Boilers pay. Shooting just 2-9 on three-pointers in the second half (29 percent overall) behind two double-digit scorers (DJ Horne with 20 and Jaden Taylor with 11), the Wolfpack’s scoring effort was futile as Purdue’s grip on the lead strengthened down the stretch.

“I think it was just one of those days where the ball wasn't bouncing our way,” Horne said.

Painter on the other hand, gave credit to his guys rather than NC State’s lack of luck.

“I thought our defense was really good in the second half,” Matt Painter said. “We didn't have any breakdowns. In my opinion, we had too many defensive breakdowns in the first half. Anytime we have those breakdowns in that one stretch, it seemed like they scored.”

As shot after shot clanked off the iron, Purdue began to turn the lights out on Cinderella. After State cut the lead to as low as seven in the second, the Boilers launched on a 12-1 run, highlighted by a pair of three-point deathblows from Loyer and Braden Smith. DJ Burns began to fold on Zach Edey in the paint soon after, as he posted another 20-10 outing on the breakout star of the tournament.

“I think I didn't do as good of a job in the first half keeping him getting to that right hand,” Burns said. “He's a tall guy, if you let him get to his spots, he's going to make his shots. We cleaned it up, but it was a little too late.”

With its lead at 18 and under four minutes to play, the ‘Pack would come up with too little, too late, as Purdue marched on to their second title game in program history, looking for their first championship.

“It's everything we've worked for, everything we thought about,” Fletcher Loyer said. “A lot of late nights, can't even sleep because you're thinking about it. It's been tough. But we fought. We're going to keep fighting. We've got 40 more minutes until we're national champs.”

“No one’s celebrating right now,” Edey said.

Now, at the end of a memorable nine-game run through the ACC and NCAA Tournaments, the Wolfpack would not realize a happy ending in Phoenix, leaving their legion of fans devastated, but the team is grateful for the magic they have produced over the last month.

“I don't know that I could be prouder of a group of men that I've ever coached in my life,” Keatts said. “Adversity, you name it, situations, you name it, hard times, you name it. They found a way to win the ACC, they found a way to make it to the Final Four. We're going to leave out of here because Purdue won the game, but we'll walk out of here with our heads up as champions because of what we've been able to provide.”

Purdue will meet the winner of UConn and Alabama in Monday’s championship game.

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