Tennessee 77, Virginia 74
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP)—Go ahead, Tennessee fans. Break out the orange paint and slather up.
It sure seems to work for the head coach.
JaJuan Smith led a second-half comeback, Chris Lofton made one free throw after another in the final seconds and the Volunteers held off Virginia 77-74 Sunday in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Fifth-seeded Tennessee (24-10) reached the round of 16 for the first time since 2000 under second-year coach Bruce Pearl, who painted himself orange before a Lady Vols’ game last month to show some spirit.
Now, his team is showing some staying power.
“When you reach the Sweet 16 at the University of Tennessee with the way we’ve had to rebuild, you’ve made a special place in history for yourself,” point guard Dane Bradshaw said.
A certain shade of history, no less.
Pearl took off his shirt and painted his torso orange to support the Lady Vols at one of their January games. The sight of his brightly colored belly was shown repeatedly on basketball highlight shows, bringing him some grief.
On Sunday, Pearl wore a conservative white shirt and did some of his most creative coaching, bringing down a Virginia team that couldn’t get one more basket out of its fabulous guard tandem.
Point guard Sean Singletary missed an open 3-pointer with 1 second left, then slumped and rested his forehead on the court in dismay as Virginia (21-11) watched its top two scorers come up empty at the end.
Coach Dave Leitao, who has led the Cavaliers through a similar two-year revival, immediately went to console the junior.
“We kind of got our heart broken,” Leitao said. “I understood at that moment in time because he’s so hard on himself that he would immediately take the blame, and that’s the last thing I wanted him to do.”
Tennessee will play No. 1 Ohio State in the South Regional on Thursday in San Antonio. The high-scoring Volunteers lost at Ohio State 68-66 in January, when 7-foot center Greg Oden was just finding his form.
“Ohio State has changed a lot,” said Pearl, who has taken Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Tennessee to the round of 16 in the last three years. “There was some uncertainty for them at that time. Greg was just starting to come on. My guess is they’ve gotten a lot better than we have.”
The Buckeyes will face a team determined to press and shoot the 3—the Volunteers set school records for steals and 3-pointers this season. They put their mark on the tournament in their opening game, matching the school and NCAA first-round scoring records by piling up 121 points against overwhelmed Long Beach State.
In the end Sunday, the Volunteers advanced by having their best player make the easiest shot of all.
Lofton, the Southeastern Conference’s player of the year, hit all six of his free throws in the last 27.7 seconds, keeping Tennessee ahead. Lofton finished with 20 points.
“I started forcing shots,” said Lofton, who was an uncharacteristic 4-of-16 from the field but 9-of-10 on free throws. “Coach kept telling me to be patient. Luckily, I got to the foul line and came through.”
It was a numbing finish for Virginia, which got another big game from its guard tandem of J.R. Reynolds (26 points) and Singletary (19 points). It wasn’t enough to get the Cavaliers into the round of 16 for the first time since 1995.
Instead, Tennessee got the better of one of the tournament’s most colorful matchups.
Reynolds donned bright orange shoes for the Cavaliers’ first-round game against Albany, and immediately broke out of his shooting slump by making his first seven shots and scoring 28 points overall.
Not surprisingly, Reynolds’ orange shoes were back for the second-round game against a coach known for his orange chest.
Reynolds had another big first half, scoring 22 points, but twisted his right ankle on a late drive to the basket. The sore ankle knocked him out of rhythm in the second half, when he made only two of his six shots.
“I didn’t have the same lift or push off my right ankle,” Reynolds said.
Appropriately, it all came down to the guards.
In the opening minute, Reynolds and Lofton turned it into a game of H-O-R-S-E. Reynolds hit a 3 from the top of the key on Virginia’s first possession, and Lofton responded with a longer 3 a minute later.
The challenge was on, and Reynolds was on his game. He was at his best during an 18-3 spurt that gave Virginia a 36-25 lead, scoring 12 of the points on assorted shots.
Then, it was Tennessee’s turn.
Smith had a three-point play and a steal-and-layup during a 15-2 spurt early in the second half that put Tennessee ahead to stay 54-44. Smith finished with 16 points.
At that point, Singletary brought Virginia back. He got a rebound while falling and, while on his chest, passed to Adrian Joseph for a basket that cut it to 61-59.
Smith ended the comeback by hitting a 3-pointer, then taking a charge from Singletary. Lofton, an 80.5 percent free-throw shooter, then finished it off from the line.