Zach Eddy was shaky for long stretches, leading Purdue to a loss to Connecticut

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GLENDALE, Ariz. – Early in the second half of Monday night’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament championship game between a pair of No. 1 seeds, Purdue’s Zach Eddy jumped up for a one-handed putback dunk against Connecticut. It’s a shot the two-time national player of the year has made regularly throughout his decorated career.

Except this time the ball hit the back iron and never got a chance to pass through the cylinder. Moments later the 7-foot-4 center missed his second layup of the second half, failing to hit the rim on the front end of a one-and-one and followed that foul free throw with a trip that led to a three-pointer. Pointer received the Huskies at State Farm Arena.

On that rare mistake-prone stretch for AD, Connecticut managed to extend its lead to 18, but all the while ensuring the outstanding senior would fall one win short of giving the Boilermakers the first national championship in program history. The Huskies became the first school to claim consecutive NCAA titles since Florida in 2006 and 2007 with 75–60 victories.

Eddy managed to overcome the fatigue that caused him to repeatedly take a step back during transitions early in the second half and finished with 37 points and 10 rebounds, both game highs. But by the time he got back on track and scored nine straight points, it was too late for the program that followed Virginia in 2019, a season after losing to a No. 16 seed that won a national championship. Was the second top seeded player. Round of 64.

“It’s something I’ve dealt with all year,” Eddy said about the defensive focus in the final game of his college career. “When teams play against us a lot of times we kind of game-plan to defend the post. He did a great job of mixing up the defence, playing one-on-one. I just have to play better. It’s one of those games where I can’t get into the parts where I’m not effective. Today I had some of those stretches and that was the game.

Connecticut (37-3) guarded Eddy almost exclusively with a single defender, the first player to rarely be double-teamed since Oscar Robertson in 1960 and led the nation in scoring (25.2 points per game). and advanced to the Final Four in the same season. Center Donovan Clingan, at 7-2, took over the starting charge over AD, who dominated the first half with 16 points and five rebounds.

With 14:15 to play in the second half Clingan picked up his third personal foul and Hurley instead deployed reserve Samson Johnson to guard AD. The junior forward bested AD by six inches and 75 pounds and fouled out with 5:38 left. However, Purdue (34-5) trailed 63-46 at the time when the Huskies got a dunk by Alex Karban and a layup by Stephon Cassel.

“People don’t realize how much of a burden you carry when you’re as good as he is, going out on opposing courts and performing like he does,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said. “I told them in the locker room you don’t move on in life and move on from here and deal with adversity in the workforce, in relationships, in everything. You are going to deal with adverse circumstances. He was excellent in dealing with adverse situations.”

Eddy (15 of 25 shooting, 7 of 10 free throws) extended his record streak of consecutive NCAA Tournament games with at least 20 points and 10 rebounds to seven. The next closest player to accomplish this feat was Navy center David Robinson in five straight games in 1986 and 1987.

“I think the big thing for me is that you can say whatever you want about me,” Eddy said. “You can say – no matter how I played, you can say anything, but you can never say that every time I stepped on the field, every time I went and practiced I didn’t give my 100 percent. That’s something I’ll always hang my hat on.”

Eddy received little help from teammates in Purdue’s second loss in 13 games. Point guard Braden Smith was the only other Boilermakers player to score in double figures (12 points). The second-year student added eight assists with one turnover but went 4 for 12 from the field.

The Huskies decided to guard AD without running a second defender on him, with Purdue’s guards working hard to get clean looks from behind the arc. The Boilermakers shot 1 of 7 on three-pointers, two days after making 10 of 25 in a 63–50 win against No. 11 seed North Carolina State in the national semifinals.

The lingering question is where AD, a traditional back-to-the-basket big man who has attempted two three-pointers in his career, goes in the NBA Draft. He announced this season that he would not use the fifth year of eligibility available due to a waiver granted by the NCAA during the coronavirus pandemic.

“He was a guy who wasn’t recruited, then all of a sudden he started getting recruited, then he moved on, which kind of pushed him over the edge,” Painter said. “All great people live on the edge. He’s going to be a great NBA player. We are really proud of him.”

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