Elite Eight must wait

Before Tennessee played Louisville in a Sweet 16 matchup late Thursday night in Charlotte, Bruce Pearl said he was a good coach, but Rick Pitino was better.

You might argue the merits of that comment. But you can't argue that Pitino was on top of his game against Tennessee.

Louisville used outstanding defense, solid guard play, productive depth and superior rebounding to shut down the Vols 79-60 as Pitino ran his record to 8-0 in Sweet 16 games with his 14th consecutive win over Tennessee.

The Cardinals clearly had more players. They overcame 20 turnovers with an impressive 43-28 rebound margin and seven blocked shots.

An 18-1 run in the first half proved the difference. The Vols went almost nine minutes without a field goal, missing 12 straight shots, as Louisville leaped ahead 24-8.

Tennessee cut the lead to five before halftime and trailed by just one three minutes into the second half before an 8-0 run basically put the game away. The Vols never got closer than seven as the more athletic Cardinals pulled away in the final five minutes.

So a great season comes to a not-so-great end for Tennessee. But that shouldn't diminish what this team accomplished. It won the SEC outright for the first time in 41 years. It set a school record with 31 wins. It beat top-ranked Memphis at Memphis. It reached a program-first No. 1 ranking. It had the top RPI of this decade and the second-highest of the past 15 years. It went undefeated at home for the second year in a row.

It made history in so many ways.

But it didn't make history in the NCAA Tournament.

Hopes of reaching the Elite Eight for the first time in school history were denied by a veteran coach who is one win away from yet another Final Four berth.

UT is now 0-5 in Sweet 16 games.

The Cardinals had five players reach double figures – Earl Clark had 17 points and 12 rebounds -- as they shot a sizzling 66 percent in the second half, 52 percent for the game.

Louisville advances to face North Carolina for a trip to the Final Four.

UT goes home, wondering what it feels like to make a regional final, much less a Final Four.

Tennessee was unable to solve Louisville's variety of defenses. Whether it was a full-court press, a 2-3 zone or a man-to-man, UT never got on track offensively, making just 5-of-20 three-point attempts while shooting 33 percent overall.

Chris Lofton, the SEC's all-time leader in made 3-pointers, had his third straight poor shooting game in the NCAA Tournament. He scored 15 points but was 3-of-15 from the field against the long and rangy Cardinal defenders, 2-of-11 from beyond the arc. He had several shots blocked.

It didn't help that Tennessee was in foul trouble the entire game. Wayne Chism picked up his second foul 105 seconds into the contest.

``He was the one guy we couldn't afford to lose and it disrupted us,'' Pearl said. ``We played hard, but it was not good enough against a team as talented and well coached as Louisville.''

The foul trouble upset Pearl.

``It's unbelievable, unreal,'' Pearl said of Chism's two early fouls. ``One was a silly foul check 1,000 feet away from the basket. One wasn't a foul.''

Pearl gave credit to Louisville's defense while wondering why his team didn't fare better against the press.

``We just could never get in a rhythm,'' Pearl said. ``It was unlike any game we played all year. We struggled against the press. In my15 years of coaching, I've never had so much difficulty attacking a press and finishing.

``They stayed on Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith (on the wings) very well and our four and five guys couldn't finish at the basket.''

And by hounding Lofton and JaJuan Smith, Louisville challenged UT's point guards to make plays. They couldn't.

Ramar Smith and J.P. Prince combined for eight points, five assists and seven turnovers. Smith got to the foul line, but hit just 2-of-7 free throws.

``J.P. was very tentative,'' Pearl said. ``So much was made and talked about the point guard position all week long and he just started tightening up a little bit. … He did not play well. He struggled. Ramar struggled. It was difficult at point guard.''

It was difficult being in foul trouble, too. JaJuan Smith fouled out. Ramar Smith, Tyler Smith, Chism and Prince had four fouls each.

``When your best players are in foul trouble … it's tough,'' Pearl said.

Louisville's talent made it tougher.

``Their size and length – it's just a little bit different out there and it bothered us,'' Pearl said. ``

``Talent wise, we're really good, but not quite up with Louisville and North Carolina. I struggled all day long with what else could I do. I couldn't help them enough tonight.''

And so Tennessee remains winless in Sweet 16 games.

It still hasn't made it to an Elite Eight game.

But the way Pearl has built this program, you can bet on this: It's only a matter of time.


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