By Alex Norman
Tennessee’s athletics program has had its share of gut punch losses over the years.
Add the events of March 28, 2014 to that growing list.
The Vols basketball team fell to Michigan 73-71 in the NCAA Tournament’s Midwest Region Semifinals, in a game that will be remembered for a questionable call in the final seconds that went against Tennessee.
“Great effort by both teams… both teams played really well,” said Vols head coach Cuonzo Martin. “(Both teams) competed, played hard… In a game like this, that’s what you expect, to go down the wire.”
The Vols, who entered the court at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis winners of three NCAA tournament games by an average of more than 17 points per contest, did not play at that same level in the first half.
Michigan shot a blistering 61.5% from the field in the first 20 minutes, including 7 of 9 (77.8%) from three point range. Vols forward Jeronne Maymon picked up two quick fouls and barely played in the opening half, limiting what the Vols could do inside.
Tennessee trailed 45-34 going into the locker room.
“I think the first half we were kind of playing soft defense,” said Vols guard Josh Richardson. “We let them get through and get to the rack whenever they wanted. And I mean, it was creating open looks from the 3 because guys had to step down to help. But I think we did a better job settling down in the second half.”
“We felt like going into the game we could drive the ball, attack the rim, make plays,” said Martin. “We didn’t do a very good job. We did it in spurts in the first half. I thought the second half we were very aggressive in getting to the rim and those were the results. So being assertive, taking the scouting report to the floor and it worked for us.”
In the second half the Wolverines lead would grow by as many as 15 points, but the Vols (24-13) stuck with their game plan and never panicked.
The Vols were down 72-64 with 2:22 to play, but then senior Jordan McRae, who led all scorers with 24 points in his final collegiate game, converted a three-point play to bring Tennessee within five. A Richardson basket brought the Vols within three with just under 25 seconds to go.
Tennessee then forced a turnover, leading to a McRae layup with 10.6 seconds to go, and the Vols were down 72-71.
On the ensuing inbounds pass, another Wolverines turnover gave Tennessee the chance to win the game, setting the stage for the controversial finish.
The ball was inbounded to Vols forward Jarnell Stokes, who was guarded by Michigan’s Jordan Morgan. Stokes moved towards the basket, contact was made with Morgan, who fell to the floor. David Hall, the official closest to the play, immediately called Stokes for a charge, and with six seconds to go the Wolverines had the ball back again.
Tennessee’s chance to win the game, for all intents and purposes, was gone.
After the game, most of the talk centered on the referee’s whistle.
“Well, they set a screen for him (Jarnell Stokes) to come open, so I knew that the play was going to be for him,” said Morgan. “And I just know he likes to play bully ball, he’s in a stance ready. I don’t know. I just was there. It’s just something I do. I take charge. That’s what I do.”
“No. No, I don’t think I fouled him,” said Stokes. “But it was a smart play for him to try to take the charge. He pretty much anticipated it.”
“They made a call,” said Martin. “To give you an exact answer I have to go back and watch film. But he was moving. Both guys were moving. But with the new rule, I’m not sure.”
Eventually, McRae took a three-quarter court shot for the win, but the miracle would not be answered. Tennessee’s season ended in heartbreaking fashion, denying them a chance to face rival Kentucky in the Regional Finals. The Wildcats edged defending national champion Louisville in the nightcap.
Next year’s Vols squad will look a lot different than this year’s edition. McRae and Maymon have used up their eligibility… and Stokes could decide to forgo his senior season for a shot at the NBA. Tennessee peaked at the right time this season… turning things around just in time to make a run to the Sweet 16.
Unfortunately for the Vols… that memorable run has come to an end.