Unfortunately for Tennessee, he wouldn't get the chance. The official ruled a charge on Stokes, rather than a block on Michigan.
"I definitely thought that was a defensive foul," a somber Stokes said following the game. "I was prepared to go to the line and knock down free throws."
Making the charge call especially controversial is the fact the NCAA instituted a new rule this season generally giving the offensive player the benefit of the doubt on block/charge calls.
"With the new rule," Stokes said, "I just didn't think that could possibly happen."
Vol senior Jordan McRae was equally upset, noting: "With the magnitude of this game, I don't think you can call a charge at that point."
The game wasn't ended yet, however, and neither was the controversy. Michigan made a long inbounds pass but Vol freshman Darius Thompson flicked it out of bounds … off a Michigan player, he believes. The official disagreed and gave the Wolverines the ball.
"They threw it long, and when he was going to catch it I tried to hit it off his leg," Thompson said. "I thought he hit it but I guess he didn't…. Basketball is basketball. The ref made a call, and you can't do nothing about that."
After getting two favorable rulings, the Wolverines wound up getting a free throw from Nik Stauskas with 2.1 seconds left that pushed their lead to 73-71. He missed the second shot but McRae's desperation 50-foot heave at the buzzer was off the mark.
Final: Michigan 73, Tennessee 71. The Wolverines (28-8) go to the Elite Eight. The Vols (24-13) go home.
Stokes, who finished with 11 points and 6 rebounds, said the controversial inbounds play went pretty much as head coach Cuonzo Martin designed it.
"He drew up a play for me to come off a screen and catch the ball in the mid-post," the player explained. "He wanted me to drive the ball strong. With the new rule I had no idea that that (charge call) could potentially happen. If I would've known I would've made a double move."
Stokes said he didn't ask the official why he called the charge but added, "I felt like he anticipated that to happen. But what's done is done. I'm kind of sick about it but it's already done."
McRae closed his Vol career with a big game at Lucas Oil Stadium – 24 points, 6 rebounds and 4 blocks – but exhibited only dejection in the post-game locker room. He was 9 of 18 from the field, 6 of 11 from the foul line.
"We fought back hard," he said. "I missed a whole lot of free throws throughout the game. Maybe if I don't miss ‘em there would be a win."
Michigan carved up Tennessee's defense in the first half, hitting 7 of 9 shots from 3-point range en route to a 45-34 halftime lead. The Wolverines hit just 4 of 11 thereafter.
"There were a couple of defensive breakdowns in the first half," Vol point guard Antonio Barton said. "We took more pride in our defense the second half and we didn't allow ourselves to break down.
Tennessee trailed by 15 points (60-45) midway through the second half but rallied valiantly to set up the dramatic finish.
"Coach kept telling us it's a long game and to keep fighting," Barton recalled. "We just kept digging and chipping away at the lead."
"I knew we weren't out of the game," Stokes said of the 15-point deficit. "We always come back, always make it a close game. We just didn't come through, though."
"You hate to lose like that … after making a run," Thompson said. "After all we've been through this year it's tough to lose like that."
Given up for dead after stumbling to a 16-11 start, the Vols won eight of nine games before their controversial loss to Michigan. Martin spent the post-game minutes encouraging his team.
"He just told us to keep our heads up, that we had a great season," Thompson said.
No Vol took the loss harder than senior Jeronne Maymon. He finished his final game as a Vol feeling both pride and pain.
"Coach Martin instills a lot of different character traits in us to go out there and play tough, play Tennessee basketball," he said. "That's what we try to do. We just came up short tonight."
STOKES ON TURNING PRO
Asked when he expects to decide whether he'll opt for the NBA Draft or return for his senior year as a Vol, Stokes replied: "I really haven't even thought about it. It hurts that this could even be potentially my last time wearing the jersey. I'm just going to pray about it, talk to my family and get advice."