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'We shouldn't hang our heads': Gonzaga unable to slow down Zach Edey, Purdue's shooters in 80-68 Sweet 16 loss

Mar. 29—DETROIT — Gonzaga coach Mark Few and player after player described the predicament — trying to crowd 7-foot-4 center Zach Edey inside, but not to the point of leaving Purdue's capable perimeter shooters open.

Gonzaga is familiar with the conundrum because it is essentially what the Zags did to opponents during a surge over the second half of the season that propelled them into Sweet 16.

The fifth-seeded Zags couldn't derail Purdue's offense, led by Edey and savvy point guard Braden Smith, and couldn't keep up on offense in an 80-68 loss Friday in front of a pro-Boilermakers crowd at Little Caesars Arena.

"When those guards shoot it like that, it's pick your poison," Few said. "They shot it great from 3 and then in the second half we shut down that area pretty good. Then Edey was just a load. It's a nice entity to have, just pitch it into him. If you play him 1-on-1, he's either going to get fouled or score."

Gonzaga finished 27-8 after making its ninth consecutive Sweet 16.

The top-seeded Boilermakers (32-4) moved into the Elite Eight to face Tennessee.

GU fifth-year senior Anton Watson's outstanding career came to a close a bit prematurely when he was called for his fifth foul with 1 minute, 34 seconds remaining.

Few protested the call, as he did on several occasions when Gonzaga bigs were whistled for fouls defending Edey, before giving Watson a hug in front of the bench.

Watson finished with 14 points and four rebounds.

"It's tough because I've never beaten them in my career and I really wanted that today," said Watson, referring to losses to Purdue at the Maui Invitational in November and the PK85 the previous November. "Zach's a hell of a player. They were hitting 3s. We were trying to throw different things at them, but they got the win.

"We shouldn't hang our heads. They're a good team."

The Boilermakers started to seize momentum with a 9-3 spurt to take a 40-36 lead at halftime. They moved in front 51-42 just four minutes into the second half, but the Zags mounted a comeback. Graham Ike, who led Gonzaga with 18 points and 10 boards, scored inside and then beat the shot clock with a 10-foot shot over Edey. Nolan Hickman's 3-pointer pulled GU within two.

Purdue's response was particularly tough on the Zags, who had done a good job on the glass but gave up a three-shot possession that ended with Edey's jump hook and a pair of putbacks to fall behind by eight points.

"That's a little bit deflating, because we've been finishing possessions the whole game," Ike said. "We just couldn't get that one, and that would have been us getting over the hump."

Instead, the deficit kept growing. Purdue cooled off behind the 3-point line in the second half, but Edey took over. He scored 16 of his 27 points in the closing half and finished with 14 rebounds and nine fouls drawn.

Ike fouled out after picking up his fourth and fifth in a 66-second span. Ben Gregg battled foul trouble throughout.

"It's a good matchup, I enjoy it," Ike said. "It makes me better, but some calls were justifiable, that last one I'm not sure. But I have to control what I can control and try to stay out of foul trouble."

Smith smoothly guided Purdue's offense. He hit a pair of 3s, scored 14 points, grabbed eight boards and handed out 15 assists. GU's Ryan Nembhard had another solid performance with 14 points and seven assists, two in the second half.

"He played a good game, congrats to him," Nembhard said of Smith. "He's been playing well all year. Good player."

Purdue, No. 1 nationally in 3-point shooting (40.9), made 45% from distance. The Boilermakers, second in rebound margin, won the glass 32-25.

It wasn't just the difficulty of dealing with Edey and a collection of 3-point shooters.

It was Purdue's ability to dissect GU's defensive strategy, whether it be single or double coverage on Edey, and nearly always make the right play.

Hickman called Purdue and UConn the smartest teams Gonzaga played this season.

"Props to them," said Hickman, who had 16 points. "They figured us out."

"They are (smart)," Gregg added. "You can tell they've been playing together for a while. They realize everything. If you double team, they have a counter. If you play single (on Edey), they're going to go at you."

Few put the Zags' strong finish to the season into perspective during his postgame message to the players.

"The majority of teams in college basketball probably would have folded up there in January based on the expectations that we have in our program and what we were dealing with," Few said.

"But these guys, they doubled down, and they showed their real character and competed, and then got even closer instead of pulling apart."