Painful Emptiness

Michigan State 70  Tennessee 69
Midwest Regional Finals
Sunday 28 March 2010
St. Louis, MO

REGIONAL FINAL POST-MORTEM

Renaldo Woodridge (#0) and Scotty Hopson (#32) show how much this one hurts. Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images.

This one hurts so bad. And, it will hurt for a long, long time.

But the hurt was worth it. We proved we belonged in the Regional Finals. We became the focus of the entire college basketball scene for a portion of an afternoon. We overcame a potentially team-destroying event (the famous Incident of New Year’s Eve) and the resulting loss of our best player by coming together to be a force instead of falling apart to be an unfortunate afterthought.

On Sunday afternoon, the Vols left everything on the court in one of the best games a fan, partial or impartial, could hope for where the prize was to cut down the nets on a national stage.

Tennessee fought, hustled, excelled, and overcame an eight-point deficit in the middle of the second half to eventually hold the lead 64-63 with 5:16 left. But that was the last lead the Vols would have. When Draymond Green made a 2-point jumper at the 4:40 mark, Michigan State had a lead that they only gave up twice when the Vols evened the score 66-66 with 3:57 left and again at 69-69 with only 12 seconds remaining on Scotty Hopson’s free throw after he stared into space for what seemed an eternity to calm himself under the hot national spotlight.

Unfortunately, Hopson’s second free throw was askew, Michigan State on the ensuing possession quickly got the ball into the low post where J.P Prince and Brian Williams forced the official to toss a coin to see who should pick up the most important foul of the entire afternoon. Prince was the recipient, leaving Raymar Morgan at the line to seal the deal for the Spartans.

Morgan cooly drained his first and followed with an intentional miss that was likely intended to ping far away for long enough to allow time to expire. But Brian Williams was able to immediately corral the ball and call time out while losing only two-tenths of a second off the game clock. That left 1.6 seconds for a miracle of historic proportions. Prince’s desperation shot from just shy of mid-court was well short of the target, and this wacky improbable run at immortality was suddenly over.

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We are a statistically-oriented people when it comes to our sports. We look to the numbers to explain what happened. They usually don’t, because the rub-of-the-green aspect of sporting events are unquantifiable. Having said that, here are some numbers that are particularly compelling.

  • Michigan State’s bench outscored the Vols’ bench 11-0 in the second half.
  • The Spartans blocked 8 shots in the game; the Vols had only 3 blocks.
  • Both teams took 21 free throws; the Spartans made only two more than the Vols (16 to 14) — two very precious points. The Vols were 7-for-12 at the FT line in the second half — 2-for-6 in the last 7 minutes.
  • After going 6-for-6 on 3-point attempts in the first 11 minutes of the game, the Vols were 1-for-10 the rest of the afternoon.

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For years, I have thought that I would not live to see my Vols in the Final Four. But after witnessing a team that in my opinion is not necessarily the best team to wear the Orange and White go further than any other Volunteer squad at the Big Dance, I now believe I will, as long as Bruce Pearl is at the helm. With arguably lesser talent than previous Pearl squads (and a few earlier Tennessee teams), this was a team that played smarter with more mental discipline than Bruce’s Boys of the previous three years.

That is a testament of the incredible progress made by this program, a program that was in shambles only five years ago, and a program that continues to grow with each successful season under the guiding hand of its gaffer.

Thank you Coach Pearl, and thanks to the players of the 2009-10 team that gave us a crazy-fun ride to a real chance to dance at the final stage.

It was fun.

Even though it hurts badly right now, there is one thing that is truer than ever:

It’s good — to be — a Tennessee Vol

I said it’s good — to be — a Tennessee Vol, I said it’s good — to be — a Tennessee Vol…

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