Tennessee knocks off Creighton for 2nd trip ever to Elite Eight

League: NCAA Basketball

Posted on: 30 Mar, 2024 at 05:43 AM

Credit: Brianna Paciorka/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK

DETROIT -- The Tennessee Volunteers haven't been able to climb the mountain in 26 previous NCAA Tournament appearances and reach the Final Four.

They'll get a chance on Sunday afternoon to finally clear that hurdle but will have to overcome 7-foot-4 Zach Edey and the top-seeded Purdue Boilermakers in the Elite Eight of the Midwest Region in Detroit.

Dalton Knecht had 24 points, six rebounds and five assists to lead No. 2 Tennessee to an 82-75 Sweet 16 victory over Creighton on Friday night. Purdue advanced with an 80-68 win over Gonzaga earlier in the evening behind Edey's 27 points and 14 rebounds.

Tennessee (27-8) has reached the Elite Eight only once before despite being a frequent visitor to March Madness. That came in 2010, when it lost to Michigan State.

The Volunteers got an up-close look at Edey and the Boilermakers in November. They squared off in the Maui Invitational with Purdue pulling out a 71-67 win. Edey had 23 points and 10 rebounds in that matchup.

The officials blew their whistles with great regularity in that contest, assessing 52 fouls, leading to 78 free throws.

"We played Purdue earlier in the year," Volunteers coach Rick Barnes said. "That was a loaded field in Maui, Honolulu. A hard-fought game, it really was.

"Right now, it's a mental prep and we know that," Barnes added. "Again, we had great respect for Purdue when we played them. But they're much better and I'd like to think we are, too."

Tennessee seized the lead against the Bluejays with an 18-0 run early in the second half and held off Creighton's late charge. The Volunteers know they'll need a stellar defensive effort to get to Phoenix, the site of the Final Four.

"This is the best group I've ever been around," said Josiah-Jordan James, who contributed 17 points on Friday. "Just to have this moment with these guys, making history, and we're not done yet. We know that. But we're so happy to be one step closer to our end goal. It's just amazing to see all our hard work pay off."

Purdue has bounced back from its first-round flop last season. It reached the Elite Eight in 2019 and lost to Virginia in overtime. The Boilermakers haven't reached the Final Four since 1980.

Coach Matt Painter believes he has the team to end that drought.

"These guys are resilient. They've played in a lot of close games," he said. "We've played one of the best schedules in the country. We've been undefeated in non-conference for the last three years. This is Zach's second time in the Sweet 16. So we've had some experience in the tournament. We've had disappointment, and I think any time you have that you appreciate things a little bit more, and your attention to detail is a little bit better."

Purdue not only has an imposing center, it has a floor leader playing at a high level. Braden Smith racked up 14 points, eight rebounds and 15 assists in the win over Gonzaga.

He'll match up against Zakai Zeigler, who supplied 18 points and six assists on Friday.

Tennessee hopes to have starting guard Santiago Vescovi back in the lineup. He missed Friday's contest due to an illness.

The Volunteers were able to overcome his absence with the 18-0 run, which allowed them to gain a 55-39 lead with 13:59 remaining.

Creighton pulled within three points, but Knecht halted the run with a 3-pointer, giving his club a 65-59 advantage. Tobe Awaka's three-point play with 1:39 remaining gave Tennessee some breathing room.

--Dana Gauruder, Field Level Media