Purdue’s Fletcher Loyer, Braden Smith deliver as Arizona falls

INDIANAPOLIS — It was hard not to flashback to Purdue’s stunning NCAA tournament loss to Fairleigh Dickinson during Arizona’s second-half run on Saturday afternoon. All the signs were there. Zach Edey being the only one consistently getting clean shots, the role players turning the ball over, outside shots not falling.

But after Fletcher Loyer’s basket with 1:29 left pushed the Boilermakers’ lead back to nine and essentially clinched the win, it became abundantly clear: This is a completely different Purdue team compared with last season.

The No. 3 Boilermakers weathered Arizona’s second-half surge en route to a 92-84 win, handing the top-ranked Wildcats their first loss of the season. It’s Purdue’s third victory over a No. 1 team in the AP poll, with the last one also coming against a top-ranked Arizona team on Nov. 25, 2000.

And this win, Purdue’s biggest of the 2023-24 campaign, wasn’t about Edey, the reigning Wooden Award winner and the runaway favorite to repeat. It was about the Boilermakers’ backcourt, the sophomore duo of Loyer and Braden Smith, who combined for 53 points and nine 3-pointers.

“What they do well is they win. They win,” Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd said of Purdue’s backcourt. “Those kids are really good basketball players.”

Smith and Loyer have taken some flak since the end of last season, when Smith struggled down the stretch, capped off by seven turnovers and a 2-for-10 shooting performance in the NCAA tournament loss, and Loyer similarly hit the freshman wall, scoring four or fewer points in four of his final five games.

But Smith has been one of the best point guards in the country this season and Loyer has had big performances in some of Purdue’s biggest games.

The two were fantastic in the first half, totaling 32 points and six 3-pointers. Loyer hit back-to-back 3s to put Purdue up six late in the period, then Smith scored eight straight points to extend the lead to 13.

“I think just being aggressive,” Loyer said. “Going in with the different mindset that we’re going to need a little more tonight, no matter who it came from, not necessarily me. Just going in, getting more warmed up, getting more ready to go. Then just being aggressive. Missed my first one, not thinking twice and shooting the next one like that, knowing it’s going in.”

Loyer and Smith’s performance in the first half and the first five minutes of the second forced Lloyd to do something Arizona hasn’t done all season defensively: play a zone.

The Wildcats went to a 3-2 zone, and it sparked a comeback, cutting a 15-point lead to four within minutes. Loyer and Smith weren’t getting the clean looks they were getting in the first half and Purdue began to struggle taking care of the ball. After not committing a turnover in the first 7:50 of the second half, the Boilermakers coughed up three in 90 seconds and seven times in less than six minutes.

“We’ve been working on that zone defense for a while, just haven’t had to use it,” Lloyd said. “You have it ready for situations like this. They’re obviously very well-organized and very good players, and they were kind of torching our man-to-man defense a little bit. So I wanted to see if we could make an adjustment and for the most part, it went well. They missed a few shots and we kind of got them out of their rhythm a little bit.”

And that’s when the questions started again. Can Purdue’s guards handle late-game pressure? Can someone besides Edey make plays down the stretch of big games?

For more than 10 minutes, Edey was the only one to score any points for Purdue. The 7-foot-4 big man was single-handedly keeping the Boilermakers in front, but he needed help — and that’s when the Purdue guards came back to life and answered.

Arizona had the lead down to four and five points on multiple occasions, but a Smith 3-pointer with 4:21 left and a pair of free throws 90 seconds later gave Purdue a 12-point cushion. The Wildcats wouldn’t get closer than five, and that came with 15 seconds left.

Loyer finished with 27 points on 11-for-18 shooting, while Smith had 26 points on 9-for-15 from the field. Edey had 22 points, nine rebounds and five assists. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, Loyer and Smith are the fourth pair of teammates in AP poll history — and the first backcourt duo — to each have at least 25 points in a win over a No. 1 team.

“I think just both our desires to win has just really sparked [the team],” Loyer said of his connection with Smith. “That’s all we want to do when we go out there. Whether Braden has 26 points, whether he has 10, whether he has two. He just wants to win the game. Same with me. Same with the other guys. … Especially with the loss last year, it’s something you don’t want to feel again, something you had to sit with all summer. It’s just something we want to push along.”

“Me and Fletch just hold each other accountable,” Smith added. “We kind of had a little moment in the game before, vs. Alabama, where I got on him and I kind of yelled at him and snapped. And he just looked at me and said like, I understand why you’re like that, because you want to win. And he’s the same way. Being able to have that, when two guys are very competitive — when it’s just coming from me and him, it goes a long way.”

Painter has heard the doubters and detractors since the end of last season, with the blame mostly falling on the shoulders of his sophomore guard duo when Purdue loses games. But it’s not a talking point within his program.

“I think they probably see it and it probably motivates them, so in a funny way, it probably helps us,” he told ESPN. “I like good basketball players. I like guys that can dribble, pass and shoot. I like guys that are competitive.”

Arizona, which was led by Caleb Love’s 29 points and Keshad Johnson’s 24 points, will drop from the No. 1 spot in the AP poll when the new rankings are released on Monday afternoon. Purdue and No. 2 Kansas are likely to vie for top billing.

“I’m not trying to be the No. 1-ranked team in December,” Lloyd said. “This is going to go a long way to really helping our program.”

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