Top-ranked Arizona was supposed to be the team with the elite guard play, not No. 3 Purdue, which has All-American post player Zach Edey as its centerpiece.
But it was Boilermaker guards Fletcher Loyer and Braden Smith who outshined Arizona’s perimeter standouts in Purdue’s 92-84 victory Saturday in Indianapolis.
It is Purdue’s first win over a No. 1 team since the 2000-01 season when the Boilermakers upset Arizona in a game that was also at Indianapolis.
Arizona’s stay at No. 1 for two weeks is over, but what does that matter in December? Absolutely nothing.
“I don’t know if we did a great job on those guards (Loyer and Smith), but those guards are really good players,” Arizona coach Tommy Lloyd said in the postgame press conference. “Loyer, I thought, we lost him a little bit early, maybe got him comfortable, and then he hit some really tough floaters, which you’re probably living with a little bit. That’s just how it goes.
“I think he banked in three or four floaters and I’m sure he’s good at that shot. So don’t get me wrong. They weren’t lucky. I mean, at some point, if you’re picking poison (by packing the defense in against Edey), floaters is a poison you’re willing to take. Some big-time shots by him.”
Loyer had 27 points and Smith 26 points with both of them combining to make 20 of 33 shots from the field, 9 of 16 from 3-point range.
They combined to average 23.8 points a game entering Saturday.
Edey, the reigning Naismith player of the year, contributed 22 points, nine rebounds and a team-high five assists.
Arizona trailed by as many as 15 points in the second half before rallying after shucking the man-to-man defense for an effective 2-3 zone that stymied Purdue’s offensive flow.
“I might have complicated things a little bit too much for our guys and made too many decisions … we missed a few coverages that we can get better at,” Lloyd explained about the defensive breakdowns on the perimeter against Loyer and Smith before the 2-3 zone was implemented.
“But Zach Edey, he’s a great player. You tip your hat to him. We thought we did a really good job on him for the most part, got him to miss a few and made a little run, but unfortunately, we dug a little too big of a hole.”
Arizona was led by Caleb Love’s 29 points on 9-of-19 shooting from the field, 4 of 9 from 3-point range. He also made all seven of his free throw attempts and had six rebounds.
Love’s starting backcourt mate, Kylan Boswell, had a season-low six points. He was 0 for 4 from beyond the arc.
Loyer and Smith almost equaled Arizona’s total scoring when they had 46 points with 14:38 left and Purdue leading 67-52.
At that point, they were 18-of-26 shooting from the field, 8 of 12 from 3-point range.
“It was a lot of fun,” Loyer said in a postgame interview on Peacock.
He was coming off a game against Alabama last week in which he was 0 of 5 from the floor and finished with four points
“We got a real good group of guys,” Loyer continued. “Just coming out every night with a great crowd like this and a nice arena, it’s a lot of fun. We’re gonna keep it rolling.”
After Purdue took the 67-52 lead, Arizona switched primarily to a 2-3 zone defense and went on an 11-0 run.
Keshad Johnson scored the first seven points of the run, including a windmill dunk in transition after a Purdue turnover.
Oumar Ballo also converted two slam dunks in transition to cut the lead to 67-63 with 10:31 left.
Arizona stayed within striking distance until 4:38 remained, when Love made two free throws to cut the lead to 78-73.
Purdue then scored seven unanswered points to effectively pull away.
“We’ve been working on that zone defense for a while; we 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. They were kind of torturing our man to man defense a little bit.
“I wanted to see if we can make an adjustment, and for the most part, it went well. They missed a few shots and I think we kind of got them out of the rhythm a little bit. They finally hit a big 3 there on the right wing and that kind of gave him the separation they needed. It put them up seven and it was tough from there.”
The Smith 3-pointer Lloyd talked about, Edey’s hook shot in the lane and two free throws by Smith enabled the Boilermakers to take an 85-73 lead with 2:55 left.
“We hung in there; obviously we were getting some good looks, and got a little rattled there when they went to their zone, which they haven’t zoned all year,” Purdue coach Matt Painter told Peacock. “Got some good post ups right there that didn’t go down.
“We lost our composure a little bit. Obviously, they’re a very talented team and they can really score the basketball. So we just hung in there and kept fighting. We’ve had a great year so far. We’ve just got to keep getting better from game to game.”
A jump shot and 3-pointer by Love cut the lead to 85-78 with 1:56 left.
Love, who scored 11 of Arizona’s last 15 points in the game, made two free throws with 15 seconds left to make it 89-84.
Purdue broke Arizona’s press and Lance Jones made a layup while being fouled with 7 seconds left. He converted the subsequent free throw to close the scoring.
Johnson finished with 24 points on 8-of-13 shooting from the field and had eight rebounds for Arizona.
Purdue outrebounded Arizona 32-26 but the Wildcats held their own inside despite Edey’s presence.
The Boilermakers had an edge of only 11-10 in second-chance points and the teams each had 40 points in the paint.
“We know Zach Edey is a great player,” Johnson said. “We know he’s used to being double-teamed and he has a lot of great shooters around him. We just tried to make it as tough as possible on him.
“He made a lot of good plays out of that double team (with the five assists). We still tried to make it hard on him but we also respect the other players. Loyer had a good game. We know Smith is a good player. The pieces around them, they’re good, too. We’ve just got to respect their team. It was a good overall win for their team.
“We have to learn from that and build on it.”
Arizona next plays Alabama on Wednesday at 9 p.m. at the Footprint Center in Phoenix before facing No. 15 Florida Atlantic next Saturday in Las Vegas.
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon. He became an educator in 2016 and is presently a special education teacher at Sunnyside High School in the Sunnyside Unified School District.