A season to celebrate

Tennessee fans, I don't want to hear it.

I knew you were hoping for a Sweet 16. I know some of you said this season would be a disappointment if the Vols didn't win two NCAA Tournament games.

So don't whine about losing 80-73 to Wichita State. Don't complain about losing five of the last eight games. Don't say you were teased into thinking this team should make a run at the Final Four.

Rather than be discouraged, you should be encouraged. Not one of you thought the Vols could win 22 games this season, not before the season. The number was more like 14.

Tennessee's loss did cost the Vols a chance to become only the second team in program history to reach the Sweet 16 by winning two NCAA tourney games.

But nobody – nobody – thought in October this team could even reach the NCAA Tournament. The goal was one fewer initial – NIT. The goal was a winning record. The goal was to finish above the fifth in the SEC East Division – the preseason projection by most pundits.

This Tennessee team thrilled you by routing No. 6 Texas in Austin, scoring a rare victory in Rupp Arena, sweeping a more talented Florida team, taking two from rival Vanderbilt, winning the SEC East by two games, garnering the highest seed (two) in the history of the program and slipping past Winthrop on an electrifying Chris Lofton fadeway from the right corner.

You got highlight after highlight from a team that is no better than sixth in the SEC in talent. You embraced this team because it overachieved, it gave great effort and it thanked you for attending games. The players were easy to like. The coach was easy to like. The style of play was easy to enjoy.

Tennessee has had more wins in a given year, but this might have been the most memorable season for the Vols since the Ernie and Bernie days of the mid-1970s.

Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl, who inherited a 14-17 team with limited skill, was asked if it was satisfying to take the Vols this far.

``It's not right now, but it will be,'' said Pearl, obviously heart-broken that the season came to an end.

``We got the whole state of Tennessee behind us. I can't tell you how many people have called and written and said they enjoyed this season. This team will go down as one of the all-time best and this is the one that got it started.''

The defeat was more bothersome to Pearl because the Vols were close, but couldn't seal the deal. For one, UT had been 18-1 with a lead in the final five minutes, but couldn't hold on against Wichita State (26-8), which went on a 14-2 run to take a 72-65 lead with 57 seconds left.

Secondly, Pearl felt the Vols (22-8) had done enough things to win, only to be shocked by a Shocker. Tennessee shut down Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year Paul Miller (10 points on 1-of-9 shooting with eight free throws), limited Sean Ogirri to three field goals and snatched 18 offensive rebounds.

``I thought we did a lot of things we needed to do to beat them,'' Pearl said.

What Pearl didn't expect was for small forward PJ Couisnard to score 20 points – twice his average – and grab nine rebounds. Cousinard hit 6-of-7 field-goal attempts and all four from 3-point range.

``He's shooting 30 percent on threes and he goes 4-for-4,'' Pearl said. ``I even said to the team, `If he takes a couple (of threes), that would be great. I didn't think he could make those shots and he made them all.''

The loss overshadowed another outstanding effort by 6-10 junior center Major Wingate. He had 15 points, seven rebounds, a career-high five blocks and a steal while containing Miller. The only glitch for Wingate: two key turnovers in the final minutes.

``I thought Major Wingate made a big statement,'' Pearl said. ``He played against one of the better centers in the country and held him to one basket. I thought Major played real well, with the exception of the turnovers.''

The Vols didn't have many turnovers (10) but they came at key moments. In the final three minutes, Wingate threw the ball out of bounds with the game tied at 65 then threw it away again in the final seconds.

But without Wingate's play, the Vols wouldn't have been in position to win.

Pearl said his team made some ``bad decisions'' on offense late in the game while Wichita State ``made back-breaking plays down the stretch that made the difference.''

Tennessee also had trouble making stops in the half-court defense. In the second half, Wichita State shot 66 percent (14 of 21), making eight of the first nine attempts. It marked the ninth time this season a UT opponent shot better than 60 percent in a half, with seven coming in the second half.

``We couldn't stop them in the half-court and that put too much pressure on our offense to score points,'' Pearl said.

So, it's on to next year for a Tennessee team that brought back excitement to the men's program not seen in over 25 years.

``My job as a coach is to get a team to live up to (its potential) and play the best it can,'' Pearl said. ``I don't know in my coaching career if I've ever been more satisfied at getting a team as close to that.

``But we came up one game short and that game was (Saturday).''

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