Sweet 16: Tennessee 76 Ohio State 73

Put Bruce Pearl and Thad Matta on either end of the court, and you get pure basketball gold.

What an unbelievable game this was.  In a season that keeps giving to us and a tournament that keeps giving to everyone, this was one of the best wire-to-wire games of both.  In the final minutes, I was thinking about how much I already wanted to go back and watch this one again...and was desperately hoping that we'd pull it off, so it didn't have to go in the pile of great games that end in orange heartbreak, and therefore become unwatchable.

But if we have San Antonio, Ohio State now has Saint Louis.

Here's something else that's much easier to relive when we're not on the receiving end of said heartbreak:  Evan Turner is unreal.

We've seen a lot of future NBA players this year...and we've beaten them all.

But individually, Turner was the hardest to deal with.  It wasn't just that he scored 31 points with half a dozen Vols running at him at various points.  It wasn't also that he engaged in his usual flirtation with a triple-double, adding 7 rebounds and 5 assists. 

He was good in the first half, with a 10-3-3.  He was in his own universe in the second, scoring 21 points and making several offensive moves that we'll see in his highlight package for the NBA Draft for the next three months.

Evan Turner and Ohio State were as good as advertised.  But on the game's final possession, J.P. Prince and Tennessee were better.

To get to that point, the Vols and Buckeyes took the final eight minutes of their 2007 Sweet 16 classic, and spread them out over all forty tonight:  we saw 12 ties and 11 lead changes, and the biggest lead of the game came before the first media timeout.  After Ohio State jumped to an 11-4 lead in the first three minutes, Tennessee settled down and stood toe-to-toe with the Buckeyes.  As every possession is so valuable in March, there were a ton of valuable shots in this game. 

The first came from Cameron Tatum, who woke the Vols up with a three to make it 11-7, hit two free throws, and then converted a three point play to give Tennessee their first lead at 15-13.  Tatum also hit a three in the final minute of the first half, giving him 11 points in the first 20 minutes.  Those 11 would be all he would get...but every single one of them was huge.

When the Vols caught a break with David Lighty going to the bench with foul trouble, Jeremie Simmons came in and knocked down three first half threes.  That kind of unexpected contribution could've been the difference in the game...but it was balanced out by the fact that Jon Diebler, a guy who was shooting over 47% from three in his last six games, went 1 for 7 beyond the arc.  Tennessee continually ran bodies at him as well, helping to cool him off.

Still, William Buford was hot in the first half, and that helped Ohio State to 42 points in the first 20 minutes, a pace that we thought gave Tennessee a smaller window of opportunity.  But again, the Vols were equal to the task, scoring 39 in the first half to make sure we were in it.

And just as Turner took over for Ohio State in the second half, our best player did the same for us:  Wayne Chism threw his headband down, hulked up, and when Turner got 21 in the second half, Chism got 18 to keep the Vols right there.

We thought coming in that one of the biggest decisions in the game would be whether the Vols would stay with Chism and Brian Williams on the floor together against OSU's glorified four guard lineup, or if they would move Prince to the four and choose to go small to matchup.  Tennessee danced with what brought them...and it was an excellent choice.  Chism (and others) got it done on David Lighty, holding him to 9 points and 3 rebounds.  And on the other end, Tennessee's inside presence was arguably the key difference in the game.

The Vols outrebounded Ohio State 36-23.  Even better:  HALF of Tennessee's rebounds were of the offensive variety.  When the Vols struggled to finish at the rim, more often than not they gave themselves a second chance.  And then down the stretch, Chism put an end to our struggles.

When Ohio State pushed the lead back to 6 with 15 to play, Chism scored six points and grabbed four rebounds in a span of 2:03.  At 51-49 Buckeyes, we then played three agonizing minutes of scoreless basketball, with each team failing to take advantage of several opportunities.  When Ohio State pushed it to five at 57-52, the Vols went to Chism again, who scored on consecutive possessions to pull Tennessee within one.

But with under eight to play, the Vols botched two more chances to take the lead, both via Scotty Hopson.  A foul and a turnover were followed by a Lighty layup that put Ohio State up 59-56 with 7:36 to play, and at that point, our most inconsistent sophomore had 0 points, 3 fouls, and 4 turnovers.

But yet again, the Vols went to the right player at the right time.  Ohio State's 1-3-1 defense gave the Vols fits at times, especially early, but great ball movement gave Tennessee lots of opportunities along the baseline after working it in to the post.  And this time, Hopson capitalized with an and-one slam for his first and only points.  The free throw tied it, and the stretch run was on.

What to do for an encore?  Prince followed with an and-one slam of his own on the next possession, this one giving Tennessee the lead at 62-61; it was our first lead since 30-27 late in the first half.  When the Buckeyes went back in front with two free throws, Tennessee went on a quick 6-0 spurt:  two more Chism buckets bookended a jumper by Melvin Goins, and suddenly the Vols led 68-63 with only 3:50 to play.

The Sweet 16 flashbacks at this point weren't to Ohio State, but North Carolina, where the Vols blew a 7 point lead with 4:48 to play ten years ago.  And when the Buckeyes came out of a timeout with two Turner free throws, a series of offensive rebounds that led to a Lighty score, and a ten second call against the Vols in the backcourt, it got beyond tense.  When Lighty stepped up and buried a three with 2:17 to play to put Ohio State back up 70-68, it got even worse.

Tennessee didn't fold, though I'm sure that was the script most - including maybe even some of us - were braced for.  Chism drew a foul and knocked down both free throws to tie it.  And then Prince finally, finally got the steal he'd been looking for all night, taking it from Lighty and setting up Chism's final points of the night, giving the Vols a 72-70 lead with 1:39 to play.  When Prince followed it up with another steal on the very next possession, we were sitting pretty...

...but the Vols failed to capitalize, putting the ball back in Ohio State's hands with less than a minute to play.  And it took Evan Turner all of ten seconds to add another big shot to his legacy.

Turner buried a villainous three to put Ohio State back in front, 73-72 with 44 seconds to play.  On the other end of the floor, the Vols attacked the basket again with Prince...but he missed.  And you could feel it slipping away, and you could see all the headlines that would sing the praises of Turner in another game where we came oh-so-close against these guys, getting sight of the Elite Eight but being granted no entry.

...but we had one more offensive rebound left.  Brian Williams was in the perfect spot, and made the perfect tip to put the good guys back up one.  Our hearts were still beating.

Ohio State went back to Turner, but he missed at the other end.  Bobby Maze battled for the loose ball and was fouled with 13 seconds to play.  He hadn't shot a free throw all night.  Three years ago, the Vols shot 8 of 17 at the line in San Antonio, 2 of 4 in the final minute, 47% for the game, and lost by a point. 

Tonight, Maze knocked down both.  We shot 12 of 15, 80% for the game.

There was one more Ghost of San Antonio to slay.

Down three, you knew Ohio State would go to Turner.  Everybody expected the Vols to foul...but we didn't.  Ohio State gave an inside-out look to Turner, who got off a three from the corner...that missed.  Somehow, he scrambled to his own rebound, and got back behind the line at the top of the key in the game's final second.

But the image of Greg Oden blocking away Ramar Smith was erased by the hand of J.P. Prince.  The best player in college basketball had a three in the final second to send the game to overtime...and Prince, who fouls three point shooters with the game on the line like no other...got a clean block.

And we keep dancing.

Both this game and this season deserve more attention...but there will be time for that later.  Because now we're in uncharted territory, and now we're trying to figure out Michigan State.  Because now...the University of Tennessee is 40 minutes away from the Final Four.  In men's basketball.

What I do know is that Tennessee took the best shot of the best player in college basketball, shot 4 of 15 from the arc and 0 of 7 in the second half, and got almost nothing from Scotty Hopson...and won the game.  Not by some fluke or any miracle...the Vols played with Ohio State every step of the way for 40 minutes, and made the last play to win it.

Turner won the battle with a 31-7-5.  Tennessee won the war with Chism (22-11), Brian Williams (9-12), and Prince (14 points, 5 assists, 1 block on the best player in college basketball with the season on the line).  Bruce Pearl said it best in the postgame:  our ten were one possession better than their six.

We'll come back to this one when we're done moving forward.  Because as unique and as unbelievably good as this moment is...we're not done yet.

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