Vols venture into first Elite Eight
ST. LOUIS – J.P. Prince and Scotty Hopson shared a chest bump and a hug at center court, then Prince shot a salute to the crowd.
Hello Elite Eight. Goodbye Ohio State.
Sixth-seeded Tennessee upset the No. 2 Buckeyes 76-73 Friday night in an NCAA Midwest Regional semifinal.
The Volunteers were simply more athletic, deeper and defended better than the Big Ten champs. Their reward is the school’s first trip to a regional final. They will meet Michigan State, a 59-52 winner over Northern Iowa, Sunday.
“I’m just proud of my teammates and proud of the whole university,” Prince said. “We’ve been through a lot of adversity. I think we actually deserved a victory. We worked hard.
“It was an overall team effort. We knew we could compete with anybody. We played as a team and we’ve just done a great job with that.
“We know it’s not over. We have another game to play.”
A team whose season seemed sunk in January, when four players were suspended for gun and drug charges, including star Tyler Smith, is now a win away from the Final Four.
The Volunteers (28-8) imposed their will inside in the second half to complete the journey and finish the Buckeyes (29-8). Wayne Chism was a monster with 22 points and 11 rebounds. Brian Williams had nine points, including a tip-in that proved to be the game-winner, and 12 boards. Tennessee outrebounded OSU 41-29.
Prince, meanwhile, was penetrating and dunking his way to 14 points. He passed out six assists.
An amazing stat: The Vols made only one jump shot in the second half.
Tennessee had to hold its breath in the final seconds as National Player of the Year candidate Evan Turner missed a 3-pointer, then had another blocked by Prince on the final play of the game.
Turner looked to an official for a foul call after the horn sounded. He got no such thing and then made a bee-line off the court as Tennessee danced around the Edward Jones Dome floor. Turner finished with 31 points, seven rebounds and five assists.
“It’s definitely tough because we had a chance to win it in the last 12 seconds,” Turner said. “It’s tough, but it happens.”
The Buckeyes led 42-39 at the half, despite a tough start by Turner. He made just one of his first five attempts from the field and committed three turnovers. But Turner began to look more comfortable over the final minutes of the half.
When Turner buried his first four shots in the second half, it appeared as if OSU might pull away.
Bruce Pearl’s defenders would have none of that.
“I thought fatigue was a factor in the second half,” Pearl said. “We didn’t do a very good job defensively in the first half. But pretty much right from jump street in the second half, our defense, our depth and our seniors really made a huge difference. Guys that wanted to take this Tennessee basketball program to a place it’s never been.”
The Buckeyes’ lack of depth appeared to be a factor in their exit. Tennessee used 10 players and had fresher, faster legs to seal the deal. As usual, Turner, Buford (15 points, four rebounds) and Jon Diebler (three points) played 40 minutes. David Lighty played 26 and Dallas Lauderdale 29.
Ohio State had to go to its thin bench early when Lighty picked up two quick fouls and was forced to sit for 14 of the first 20 minutes. Reserve guard Jeremie Simmons came on and drilled three big 3-pointers over 14 first-half minutes. But he didn’t see the court in the second half.
The Vols will see another Big Ten opponent Sunday, when they take on the fifth-seeded Spartans. They’ll do it with a trip to Indianapolis in their sights.
Suddenly, they have as good of a chance at reaching the Final Four as they ever have.