As Tennessee's coaches attempted to concoct a play to save the Vols' season during the final timeout of Sunday's Midwest Regional Final, forward J.P. Prince's mind was still on the previous sequence.
He approached media members seated courtside to ask if referees made a good call when they whistled him for a foul with 1.8 seconds to go, sending Michigan State's Raymar Morgan to the foul line for the game-winning free throws.
When Tennessee's Scotty Hopson missed the potential go-ahead free throw with 12 seconds left in a tie game, the Vols were inexplicably slow to get back on defense and Prince had to attempt to block Morgan's game-winning layup. Slow-motion TV replays show that Prince avoided body contact and got mostly ball with his elbow, though Tennessee big man Brian Williams may have made contact with Morgan's body from behind.
"For it to end like that with one second, that's just one of the most painful things," Prince said after Michigan State's 70-69 victory. "I saw Raymar going up, and I think my elbow hit the ball, as I remember. It happened so fast. And you hear the whistle. I don't know ... the ref made the call. I've got to live with it."
Morgan's go-ahead free throw and Prince's subsequent off-target half-court prayer concluded one of the better games in this NCAA tournament and one of the better seasons in Tennessee basketball history. The Vols emerged from the shadow of their juggernaut football and women's basketball programs to advance to the Elite Eight for the first time in school history, but their bid to make the Final Four ended in heartbreak.
That Tennessee even made it this far is especially impressive considering its season appeared over after four players were arrested New Year’s Day after a traffic stop in which a gun and marijuana were found. Coach Bruce Pearl kicked leading scorer Tyler Smith off the team and suspended three others, but the Vols rallied to upset Kansas and Kentucky in the regular season and then topple second-seeded Ohio State on Friday to advance to the Regional final.
Coming so close to the Final Four only to fall short will eat at Pearl all offseason, but he said the foul called on Prince won't be what he dwells on.
"If we had gotten back better and been matched up better, and, you know, if the look wasn't in such a high-percentage location, then you begin to maybe be concerned that the game was won or lost on a free throw," Pearl said. "They got it in there close. And so regardless of the contact, it was a foul."