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Tennessee Basketball: Vols’ outstanding season still ends with no Final Four

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The Final Four door remains shut for the Tennessee Basketball.

Not even Dalton Knecht’s 37 points were enough to carry the second-seed Vols past No. 1 seed Purdue in an Elite Eight contest Sunday in Detroit, which UT lost 72-66.

Purdue’s two-time national Player of the Year Zach Edey proved too much for Tennessee Basketball as he scored a career-high 40 points, grabbed 16 rebounds and affected several close-range shots for the Vols.

Knecht’s output was an NCAA Tournament record for a Vol, but he didn’t get much help. No other UT player reached double digits.

Center Jonas Aidoo went scoreless, going 0-for-4 from the field and getting dominated by Edey on the defensive end. Aidoo appeared to be intimidated by the 7-foot-4 Edey. He was so ineffective, he barely played in the second half as coach Rick Barnes went with Tobe Awaka and J.P. Estrella at the post.

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Point guard Zakai Ziegler also had a poor offensive game. He scored just nine points on 3-of-12 shooting from the field, 1-of-9 on 3s and 2-of-5 on free throws, missing the front end of a 1-and-1. He did have eight assists against one turnover.

Josiah-Jordan James was the second-best offensive weapon for Tennessee Basketball, scoring eight points, but all came in the first half as he took only four shots – one in the second half — and was 2-for-2 on 3s.

Defensive ace Jahmai Mashack got his second straight start in place of Santiago Vescovi (flu) but had just two points. Vescovi went scoreless in 13 minutes.

Tennessee faltered like it usually does in the NCAA Tournament, undone by poor shooting. The Vols did well from 3-point range, thanks to Knecht’s 6-of-12. But UT shot a miserable 13-for-36 on 2-point attempts, altering shots around Edey.

Tennessee had a 14-minute stretch in which Knecht was the lone Vol to make a field goal. The Vols couldn’t overcome the lack of offense from Aidoo and Mashack and an off game from Ziegler.

And they couldn’t overcome Edey, who not only was 13-for-21 from the field but 14-for-22 on free throws and drew about a dozen fouls.

Tennessee tried Aidoo, Awaka, Estrella and even the 6-foot-6 Mashack on Edey. UT had some success with a double team from a wing player, but Edey too often got the ball in scoring position and got an offensive rebound which led to a field goal or free throw.

“They’ve got a very unique player in Zach Edey,” said Barnes, whose nine NCAA tourney wins are the most ever by a Vols coach. “He’s an extremely physical player, does a great job wedging his body inside. … Where he’s improved so much is his footwork.”

Edey also gets the benefit of the whistle. He drew about 12 fouls from UT, and he camped out in the lane without getting a 3-second violation call.

“He’s a hard guy to officiate,” Barnes said.

Tennessee started hot from outside and led 32-21. But Purdue had a 15-2 run to close the first half and take a 36-34 lead.

You knew UT was in trouble at the break when the Vols trailed despite making 7-of-13 3s while Purdue was only 1-for-8.

Purdue finished only 3-for-15 from outside, but the Boilermakers had Edey and dominated the boards, 47-26, including 13 offensive rebounds. Purdue also was 21-of-33 on free throws to UT’s 7-for-11.

“It’s hard to put into words the pain I feel right now,” James said. “These guys mean so much to me.”

So an outstanding season comes to an end for Tennessee Basketball. The Vols won 27 games for the fifth time in school history. They won the SEC regular-season title for a second time under Barnes. They reached the Elite Eight for just the second time ever.

And they had the SEC’s Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year.

But they fell one game short of making that elusive Final Four.

“It’s just a blessing to be with this group of guys,’’ Barnes said. “It’s something I wish every coach could enjoy.’’

Barnes wishes he could have enjoyed it for one more weekend.

But Purdue and Edey proved to be too much as the Boilermakers earned their first Final Four berth in 44 years.

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