Smith’s free throws help Vols ice Butler in OT, 76-71; next for Tennessee is Louisville
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP)—The Tennessee Volunteers scrapped, pounded and grabbed.
They also survived. No coincidence in that.
The second-seeded Vols mostly ditched the glamorous 3-pointer and got physical in Sunday’s second-round, moving on with a 76-71 overtime victory over Butler.
Tennessee (31-4) got a little assist from Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt, who called her men’s counterpart a few hours before the game.
“She said, ‘Just tell those guys to rebound the basketball,”’ Bruce Pearl said of the colleague, whose seven national titles make her something of an expert.
JaJuan Smith hit four straight free throws in the final 13.6 seconds of overtime and the Vols barely won a game they at times threatened to turn into an East Regional rout.
The earliest game to feature two 30-win teams definitely lived up to the distinction.
The Vols, who struggled at times against American in the first round, will play Louisville on Thursday in Charlotte, N.C.
Tennessee scored 38 points in the paint, had five players with multiple fouls by halftime and made only two 3s in the final 40 minutes against the Bulldogs (30-4).
“Fatigue was a factor for them at some point, because of the way we guarded them,” Pearl said. “We really played great defense tonight and did what we needed to do on the boards.”
The approach paid off at the end.
The Vols scored six straight points inside after the Bulldogs took their first lead in the final 2 minutes of OT, including benched guard Ramar Smith’s basket with 27 seconds left to make it 72-68.
Butler still wouldn’t go away. Pete Campbell followed a missed shot to make it 72-70 with 16 seconds left. JaJaun Smith then made both free throws.
Julian Betko rebounded a missed 3-pointer by A.J. Graves and was fouled with 4.9 seconds left for Butler. He made 1-of-2 from the line, and JaJuan Smith grabbed the rebound before icing the game with foul shots at the other end.
The Bulldogs, who got a low seed considering their No. 11 national ranking, didn’t have their minds changed. Coach Brad Stevens remains convinced his team is “Final Four-caliber,” and his players agree.
“Why wouldn’t we? We play our style of basketball,” said Mike Green, who had 15 points, seven rebounds and five assists before fouling out late in overtime. “It’s been very effective.”
So has Tennessee’s more fast-and-loose style.
JaJuan Smith sported the motivating message “No. 1 seed” on his sneakers for a second straight game for a Vols team that felt they were worthy. Tennessee survived the tournament’s opening weekend for the second straight year and avoided another 2-seed flop. The Vols had fallen in the second round as a No. 2 seed in 2006, the only other time they were seeded as high.
Wayne Chism led foul-plagued Tennessee with 16 points, while Tyler Smith added 15 and eight rebounds and JaJuan Smith had 11.
The Vols led by 13 in the first half and 10 early in the second, but Butler kept coming back.
The Bulldogs, who couldn’t catch up to Tennessee for the first 37-plus minutes, took their first lead on Graves’ short jumper in the paint to make it 68-66 with 1:46 left in overtime. Ramar Smith and Chism both scored inside to retake the lead inside the final minute.
Tyler Smith blocked Graves from behind and Chism won the scramble for the loose ball and called timeout with 33 seconds left. Smith was thankful the referees didn’t call goaltending.
“I was so happy they gave it to me,” he said. “I don’t know if I caught it on the way up or the way down.”
Ramar Smith then scored, coming up with a big play after losing his starting job to J.P. Prince, an Arizona transfer who made his first start for Tennessee.
“I came in and backed my teammates up,” Ramar Smith said. “I came out and played my heart out for my teammates.”
Prince had nine points, seven rebounds, five assists—and six of the Vols’ 20 turnovers.
Graves led Butler with 21 points on just 6-of-18 shooting. Pete Campbell, who made eight 3s in the first round, added 12 points and Willie Veasley had 11.
Regulation ended in anticlimactic fashion.
Veasley pushed the ball back in the basket off a missed shot to make it 63-all with 37 seconds left, then Tennessee pushed it across midcourt and called timeout.
Prince was called for traveling against defender Drew Streicher with 4 seconds left, and Green caught the inbounds pass on the run but couldn’t get off a decent shot.
The Vols tried to set the tone early, sinking three 3-pointers and forcing five turnovers in the first five minutes on their way to a 21-8 lead.
“We sent a message right off the bat that we were going to represent the SEC,” Pearl said. “I thought we showed a tremendous determination to advance.”
Butler, winner of 59 games the past two seasons, hardly panicked. After all they rallied to beat Tennessee in the regular season last year after trailing, coincidentally, 21-8.
“I’ll tell you this about our team: We haven’t been out of a game in a long time,” Stevens said. “When you think about what this team has accomplished in the last two years, it’s absolutely incredible.”