Vols blow shot at Elite Eight appearance

Tennessee was a half away from history. Never before had the Vols reached the Elite Eight. But there they were, leading top-seed and No. 1 ranked Ohio State by 17 at halftime, drilling threes with uncanny precision and inducing 7-foot center Greg Oden into foul trouble.

The table was set.

But Tennessee forgot to finish the meal.

The Buckeyes (33-3) stormed back from a 20-point first-half deficit to tie the game with 9:34 left, then won it with clutch plays down the stretch against the defense-less Vols (24-11).

It was a heart-breaking way for an overachieving Tennessee team to end an exciting season.

``We're terribly disappointed,'' Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said. ``We proved we could beat the best teams in the country. We've also proved we could come close to beating the best teams in the country.''

The Vols came close – for the second time – against the talented Buckeyes. Tennessee lost the first match in Columbus 68-66 when Ramar Smith missed a runner in the final seconds.

The South Regional semifinal in San Antonio ended nearly the same way, with Smith's runner being blocked by Oden.

It was a botched final attempt by the Vols.

After Michael Conley Jr. gave Ohio State a one-point lead on a free throw with 6.5 seconds left, Smith got the rebound and rocketed down court. He was supposed to get a mid-court screen from Wayne Chism to free him from a defender and to lure Oden into stepping away from the basket.

Instead, Chism ran toward the goal, Oden went with him, and that left Oden in position to swat away Smith's last-ditch effort.

``Ramar can make tough twos,'' Pearl said. ``I was pleased with his look.''

But Pearl was not pleased with the officiating.

``Ramar drew about the same contact as Conley,'' Pearl said, questioning why no foul was called on Smith's drive but one was on Conley's.

It wasn't the only call Pearl questioned. Conley attempted 14 free throws. Chris Lofton, the SEC Player of the Year, attempted none.

``I think 5 on the Tennessee team is a pretty good player,'' Pearl said. ``Maybe Chris doesn't drive it into contact (like Conley). For him to not go to the foul line one time, it's difficult for me to understand.''

It's also difficult to understand why Lofton isn't UT's primary option late in a game. He is UT's best foul shooter, best 3-point shooter and best finisher. He helped protect the lead against Virginia with six free throws in the final 18.7 seconds.

But in two close calls against Ohio State, he wasn't the go-to guy. A true freshman was. Why not get the ball to the SEC's leading scorer with the game on the line, a guy who had already scored 24 points?

That wasn't the only concern for Tennessee. The Vols bolted to a big lead by making five of their first six 3-point attempts and seven of their first 10 and they took Oden out of the game. Oden, who had 24 points and 15 rebounds in the first meeting between the teams, collected three first-half fouls and finished with nine points and three rebounds in 18 minutes.

Tennessee might have played its best half ever on a big stage by securing a 49-32 halftime lead.

``The thought went through my mind, `If they keep playing like this, they're gonna win it all,'' Ohio State coach Thad Matta said.

Considering the Vols hit 16 of 31 3-pointers, committed just seven turnovers and outrebounded Ohio State, you'd have thought they were about to score their second win over a No. 1 ranked team – UT beat South Carolina in 1969.

But three things did in the Vols.

First, free-throw shooting. UT hit eight of 17. Ohio State made 23 of 35 (20 of 29 in the second half). Despite the disparity in attempts, if UT makes 60 percent, it wins.

``We weren't aggressive enough in the second half,'' Pearl said of his defense. ``We sat back and they attacked us.''

Pearl added that the Vols are not mentally or physically tough enough on defense ``when I'm not barking at them.''

Secondly, UT lost its defensive edge in the second half. In the first half, Ohio State had six turnovers as UT got four steals. In the second half, the Buckeyes had two turnovers and the Vols failed to record a steal.

``They came out with great intensity and urgency (in the second half),'' Lofton said, ``and we didn't come out with urgency on defense.''

Said Dane Bradshaw: ``We were not overconfident. We said at halftime, `Play like you're down by 10.'''

Thirdly, UT took too many quick threes in the second half, allowing Ohio State to quickly cut into the lead. Lofton was guilty of firing up three quick long-range shots. Ron Lewis, who had 25 points, helped ignite the comeback. After Bradshaw missed a layup, Lewis hit a three to give OSU an 82-79 lead with 2:02 to play.

``Ron Lewis scared me more than anyone else as a step-up guy,'' Pearl said.

But it wasn't just Lewis. It was Conley with his drives. It was David Lighty's two key baskets. And it was Oden with a last-second block.

Tennessee won one NCAA Tournament game last season. The Vols won two this season. They went one step farther, but were disappointed they didn't go two.

Pearl was asked if the defeat to Ohio State detracted from a season in which the Vols beat Memphis, beat Texas, beat Florida, beat Kentucky, beat Vanderbilt and came within an eyelash twice of beating the nation's top-ranked team.

``This loss doesn't detract one thing from the season,'' Pearl scoffed. ``We played some of the best basketball this team has ever played.

``I'm real proud of this basketball team. My job is to get them to play to their ability, and we're right there.''

And they were one play away from the elusive Elite Eight.


Tennessee was making its fourth Sweet 16 appearance, but only the second since the field was expanded to 64 teams in 1985. The Vols made the Sweet 16 in 2000, 1981 and 1967. In 1981, the Vols won just one game to make the regional final. In 1967, with a limited field, the Vols got a first-round bye to the Sweet 16.

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