No regrets

Still stinging from the agony of defeat, a few members of Tennessee's basketball team hinted that Sunday's 70-69 loss to Michigan State in the Elite Eight was a tragedy. The real tragedy would be if they feel that way for more than a few hours.

What Bruce Pearl's 2009-10 Vols accomplished in recent months should be cause for celebration, not regret. They overcame considerable adversity to win 28 games, second most in program history. They upset No.1 Kansas, No. 2 Kentucky and No. 5 Ohio State - all after their star player was dismissed on Jan. 8. They became the first Vol team ever to reach the Elite Eight and they came within two points of making the Final Four.

Thankfully, senior Wayne Chism got it right. When asked to reflect on the season, he focused on the accomplishments of the first 36 games rather than the disappointing conclusion of Game 37.

"I'm just proud of my team for what we overcame this season, and the way we came together and put on a nice run like we did," he said. "This team wouldn't never have been nowhere without us three seniors (J.P. Prince, Bobby Maze and himself) leading this team and Coach keeping us motivated and together the whole time."

Sadly, not all of Chism's teammates were so philosophical. Asked if taking the program to previously unattained heights softened the blow of missing the Final Four, Maze shook his head.

"Not right now," he replied. "That (Final Four) was our expectation coming into the season. Now it's going to stick with us forever. Anytime we watch college games or during tournament time we're going to come back to that very moment when we was just short ... especially when you only lose by one point."

Even Tennessee's usually unflappable head coach was down in the dumps following the gut-wrenching loss at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis.

"Our basketball program took a major step thanks to these guys up here," he said, nodding toward seniors Chism, Prince and Maze, "but this one here won't go away for ...ever."

The Vols have nothing to be ashamed of. They performed exceptionally well in their first-ever Elite Eight appearance. Showing no nerves whatsoever, they hit 9 of their first 12 shots - 6 of 6 from 3 - and scored 26 points in the opening 10 minutes. They were on pace to score 104 points at that stage.

Pearl was not surprised.

"I knew Michigan State was good but I thought we could beat 'em," he said. "And I thought we were going to beat 'em."

Tennessee led 47-42 in the second half and appeared on its way to doing just that. When Prince went to the bench with three fouls and 16:20 remaining, however, the momentum shifted dramatically. Ohio State took advantage of five UT turnovers to outscore the Vols 17-4 over the next 4 1/2 minutes and go up 59-51.

"We wasn't doing what we're supposed to do," Chism said. "At that time we just couldn't make shots. Sometimes it happens that the other team goes on a nice run, like they did. It was just because they was capitalizing off our missed shots and some of our bad plays."

Tennessee answered Michigan State's 17-4 run with an 11-2 spurt that produced a 62-61 Vol lead entering the final six minutes but the Big Orange couldn't close the deal down the stretch.

"Michigan State played a good game," Chism said, "and they came out with a good win at the end."

Following his initial sadness, Pearl began to focus more on the positives than the negatives.

"I think we came to St. Louis expecting to win two games," he said. "We played two really good teams and we played well both nights."

Ultimately, the coach was just as pleased with Tennessee's fans as he was with Tennessee's players.

"I'm proud when you looked into the stands and saw all of that orange up there," Pearl said. "This isn't close to home, either. These people got in the car and drove and got here. They're very proud of this team. They stuck with us all season long because there was a lot of adversity. I think they enjoyed this group tremendously. We added to the history and tradition."

When the past is painful, it often helps to look to the future. Pearl did just that in his closing remarks.

"We've got some great kids coming in," he said, "and we're going to be a good basketball team again next year.... I feel very, very blessed that The Lord has blessed us so much."

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