By Steve Williams
Tennessee’s play against Michigan in the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament was like a microcosm of its season. The Vols fell behind, battled back and came up a little short.
Going into Friday night’s game in Indianapolis, I thought Michigan, a team known for its 3-point marksmanship, would experience trouble in spacious Lucas Oil Stadium, while UT’s inside power game wouldn’t be affected at all.
Tennessee was even going to be playing in The House that Peyton built.
Everything pointed to an upset win over the No. 2 seeded Wolverines in the Midwest Regional semifinals. A first-ever trip to the Final Four would be just one win away for the No. 11 seeded Vols.
Unfortunately for Tennessee fans, Michigan made 3-point shooting look as easy as dropping beach balls into Lake Erie and held on for a 73-71 win.
The Vols, who allowed an average of 65 points in NCAA tourney wins over Iowa, UMass and Mercer, were torched for 45 points in the first half.
When Glenn Robinson III connected at the 15-minute mark of the second half, the Wolverines (28-8) had made 8 of 11 from 3-point land and were pulling away 54-41.
Michigan’s margin was 15 points (60-45) with 10:50 to go.
The Vols responded like they did entering the regular season’s homestretch. They didn’t quit.
With his team down by only one point and pressing, UT Coach Cuonzo Martin showed a rare burst of emotion when a Michigan player stepped on the baseline in backcourt with 9.6 seconds left.
Tennessee would have the ball under its own basket with a chance to cap a great comeback.
I liked Coach Martin’s strategy, getting the ball to Jarnell Stokes. But the big guy was called for an offensive foul, as he started a drive and collided with Jordan Morgan with six seconds remaining.
“He (Stokes) likes to play bully ball,” said Morgan after the game.
Stokes said he didn’t think he fouled him.
Michigan sophomore Nik Stauskas made the front end of a 1-and-1 with 2.1 seconds to go and missed the second shot, giving Tennessee and Jordan McRae time for only a 70-foot desperation heave, which sailed over the backboard.
The Vols (24-13) won respect, if not the game.
In a post-game television interview, Michigan Coach John Beilein called Tennessee a “hungry team” and said “they turned the game around.”
CBS Sports’ NCAA tourney guys also heaped praise on the Vols.
“Tennessee is one of the great stories of this tournament,” said Greg Gumbel.
“A gallant comeback,” said Charles Barkley.
Clark Kellogg noted the Vols will have two starters returning in 2014-15 in Stokes and Josh Richardson plus others, although Stokes reportedly said after the game he hasn’t made a decision yet on whether or not he will forgo his senior season to turn pro.
“This group will be another one to keep an eye on next season,” said Kellogg.
“Tennessee just didn’t get off to a good enough start,” added Barkley.
The Vols definitely will miss McRae next season. The two-time All-SEC wing guard tallied a game-high 24 points against Michigan, although his five missed free throws came back to haunt his team.
Most important for the Tennessee basketball program now is to make Coach Martin feel wanted and appreciated.
There was a report last week that Martin had a new $2.4 million contract offer on his desk that he was not going to consider signing until the end of the season.
Martin would have become a hot commodity had Tennessee reached the Final Four. That the Vols lost short of the Elite Eight makes it much less likely they will lose their coach to another school.
UT basketball at least comes away with that silver lining, if not One Shining Moment.