Advancing to the Final Four for the sixth time in 15 years at the Michigan State helm, coach Tom Izzo now stands 6-1 in Elite Eight games. Bruce Pearl, in his first Div. I Elite Eight, was not at all consoled by the fact his team played hard, played well and came within a point of advancing.
"This is painful," the Vol coach said. "This is disappointing. Michigan State, we congratulate them, but this is not what we came here to do."
Michigan State (28-8) now advances to face Butler in Saturday's Final Four semifinals. Tennessee (28-9) now goes home to reflect on a remarkable season that featured upsets of No. 1 Kansas, No. 2 Kentucky, No. 5 Ohio State and the first Elite Eight appearance in program history.
For a team unaccustomed to such a grand stage, the Vols looked right at home Sunday afternoon. They made nine of their first 12 shots, including all six 3-point tries, but led just 24-22 due to some breakdowns on defense.
Tennessee extended a 41-39 halftime lead to 47-42 but Prince was called for his third foul - a block - and went to the bench with 16:20 left. The Vols' momentum apparently went with him because Michigan State immediately launched a 14-4 run to pull ahead 56-51 with 12:24 remaining.
Prince returned at this juncture but a three-point play by Draymond Green pushed the Spartans' run to 17-4 and their lead to 59-51 with 11:42 to play.
Tennessee clawed back, however, and a 5-foot hook shot by Brian Williams put the Vols on top 62-61 with 6:08 left. Michigan State surged ahead 69-66 but a follow dunk by Williams and the first of Hopson's two free throws tied the score at 69 with 11.2 seconds left, setting up the dramatic finish.
Michigan State got the rebound following Hopson's second foul shot and raced into front court, quickly getting the ball to Morgan underneath the basket. Fouled on a layup attempt, he made the first free throw to break the 69-all tie before intentionally missing the second.
"People think about those last-second shots," Pearl mused, "but games are as often won and lost on a defensive possession. If we get back defensively (after Hopson's miss) and get matched up, we go to overtime, and we like our chances in overtime."
Ironically, Morgan was fouled by Prince, whose last-second block of a potential game-tying shot by Ohio State's Evan Turner sealed UT's Sweet 16 win on Friday night. This time, however, Prince was whistled for a foul - a whistle he felt was not justified.
"I think at the end of the game you let the players win the game," he said. "That's the only thing I say - let us win the game. It's unfortunate that he called it.... That's a tough way to go out."
The Vols did just about everything they needed to do to win. They outshot Michigan State 51.1 percent to 46.2 percent from the field and 43.7 percent (7 of 15) to 33.3 percent (6 of 18) from 3. They broke even on the backboards (27 to 27) and committed fewer turnovers (10 to 11).
Ultimately, the game came down to which team would make the clutch play in the final seconds ... and Michigan State proved to be that team.
Durrell Summers, a 6-4 guard who was averaging 10.9 points per game coming in, burned the Vols by hitting 8 of 10 shots (4 of 6 from 3) en route to a game-high 21 points. Morgan and Green added 13 each.
Prince added 12 points for the Vols. Brian Williams chipped in 11 points and 9 rebounds. Hopson scored 10 points and Bobby Maze 9.
In the end, the Vols played well ... just not quite well enough.
"I'm sorry for our fans," Pearl said. "I apologize that we couldn't get you one more step."