Show me an expert who had Tennessee vs. Ohio in the second round, and I'll show you a liar. Welcome to March.
For the second consecutive year, the Vols played an incredibly competitive opening round game against a team that was every bit our equal. This one felt like the Oklahoma State game the Vols lost at the buzzer for much of the second half...and then in the final three minutes, it got even more tense.
Tennessee stretched an even game to an eight point lead in the final three minutes of the first half, then pushed it to nine when Scotty Hopson hit a three out of the locker room to start the second. That would be the biggest lead of the night, as San Diego State worked it back down and actually took the lead at 45-44 with 9:23 to play. The Vols immediately responded with two free throws from J.P. Prince, and would never trail again...but boy, did we come close.
Leading 55-50 with three minutes to play, the Vols watched San Diego State battle back, helping them along the way with turnovers on three consecutive possessions. The third one led to a wide open look from the corner for Chase Tapley, but his three rimmed out, and Brian Williams grabbed his eighth and final rebound of the night. BWill had zero points on the night, but calmly went to the line and sank two free throws, putting the Vols up 57-54.
Free throw shooting became the first part of the story down the stretch: San Diego State, who was supposed to be one of the worst free throw shooting teams in college basketball, got two from D.J. Gay to make it 57-56. The Aztecs then sent J.P. Prince to the line, and though Prince was a beast for the Vols all night (15 points 6 rebounds), he missed both with under a minute to play......but Wayne Chism grabbed the game's biggest rebound to keep the possession alive for the Vols. Tennessee ran the shot clock down to 13, with 19 on the game clock, when Chism passed to Bobby Maze and the Aztecs chose to trap. What unfolded next might be the most beautiful ball movement I've seen from a Tennessee team in two years: Maze went to Chism at the top of the key, he drew the defenders and then fired inside to Brian Williams, as the defense collapsed. Williams sent a touch pass back outside to the waiting Melvin Goins - who I'm going to wager was only in the game for defensive purposes until Chism got that offensive rebound - and Goins drained his fourth three pointer of the night. 60-56 Vols, 13.8 seconds left, Goins is a hero.
San Diego State comes flying downcourt, D.J. Gay lines up a three...and Goins fouls him. Gay hits all three, and Goins has gone from hero to goat in 4.3 seconds.
But again, the Vols turned to their leader: Wayne Chism was fouled, and he nailed both with 7.4 seconds left. On the night, the Vols shot 14 of 18 at the free throw line, 77.8% (our season average is 66.9%). Chism got the biggest rebound and made the biggest free throws.
Still, there were 7.4 seconds left, with the Aztecs down 62-59. And again, it was Goins who made the difference: his on-the-ball pressure in the backcourt forced San Diego State to dribble most of the clock out, getting a look for freshman forward Kawhi Leonard, who missed badly at the buzzer. Survive. Advance.
Hats off to San Diego State. We thought we had an even matchup on our hands, and we were right. If that team is a year away, in a year they're going to be very good. If you like balance, both teams had 10 assists and 10 turnovers, and SDSU won the rebounding battle 30-29. But tonight, the more experienced Vols made the plays in the final minute, Goins did enough good to negate his bad decision, and Tennessee plays on.
We thought the guards would have to lead us, and they did: Melvin Goins was the player of the game, J.P. Prince wasn't far behind, and Bobby Maze was also very good: 41 points combined from that group. Scotty Hopson wasn't perfect, but both of his threes were huge. Cameron Tatum, who I thought would be one of our most important players, didn't score...but the Vols still got 49 of their 62 points from that guard group.
And Tennessee's balance will be helpful on Saturday, because intead of #3 Georgetown, the Vols will face #14 Ohio, who put on one of the more impressive shooting displays I've seen in the tournament today in a 97-83 blowout win. It'll be a completely different look, and Tennessee's advantage will shift from guard play to post play...but we're balanced enough to handle it.
We fought hard for this one, and made the plays we didn't make at the end last year. Now against Ohio (who we'll preview later on) we have an excellent opportunity to make the Sweet 16. Stay focused, stay poised...and stay alive.