The whole family came down from Massachusetts to join Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl on his 50th birthday.
"He’s from 20 minutes away from here, so it’s really special to be here, playing in front of his old family," said his son Steven, a backup forward on the Volunteers. "All of our aunts and uncles live up here, so that’s been special, and a lot of friends have come to support us." But it wasn’t until midnight had passed, San Diego State’s last shot had sailed wide and the Volunteers had advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament that the Pearls were able to celebrate.
"When I woke up this morning I thought to say something to him, but I said ‘I’m going to wait," Tennessee guard Bobby Maze said after the sixth-seeded Vols held off No. 11 seed San Diego State 62-59 on Thursday night in the first round of the Midwest Regional. "The only way to give him his praise is to win this game. Now we did that. Now I guess we can say `Happy Birthday’ to him."
The Volunteers (26-8) will play Saturday against No. 14 seed Ohio, a surprisingly easy upset winner over third-seeded Georgetown, and a victory would put Tennessee in the round of 16 for the third time in four years. Tennessee has not missed the tournament in Pearl’s five years in Knoxville, and its only first-round loss was last year.
"The toughest one sometimes is the first one, it really is," said Pearl, who grew up in Sharon, Mass. "And especially when you go up against a team as good as San Diego State."
Melvin Goins scored a career-high 15 points, making his fourth 3-pointer with 19 seconds left after San Diego State cut the deficit to one. J.P. Prince also scored 15 for Tennessee.
Goins was 4 for 5 from 3-point range, and the Vols went 8 for 17 from beyond the arc.
D.J. Gay had 16 points for No. 11 seed San Diego State (25-9). Kawhi Leonard scored 12 with 10 rebounds, but he missed a well-guarded 3-pointer at the buzzer that would have tied it.
The Aztecs, who won the Mountain West Conference, have never won an NCAA tournament game.
"This is a very cruel business when you don’t win, and the end comes very abruptly at this time of year," said San Diego State coach Steve Fisher, who won the 1989 NCAA title and reached the championship game twice more with Michigan. "I told our team afterward, ‘It has to hurt. It has to hurt more than 30 seconds.’ I’m disappointed and feel very badly for them because they won’t have the opportunity to experience what advancing means and how it feels. I’ve been there. I know how it feels. We’ll have a chance next year."
Up six before Gay’s 3-pointer made it 53-50 with 4:15 left, the Vols made it a five-point lead on Maze’s free throws. Kelvin Davis hit a pair of free throws and Billy White made a jumper for San Diego State to make it 55-54 with just under 2 minutes left.
Brian Williams and Gay exchanged free throws, then Prince missed a pair of foul shots with 47 seconds left and the Vols still nursing a one-point lead. But Wayne Chism grabbed the rebound and Tennessee ran another 28 seconds off the clock before Goins hit a 3 to make it 60-56.
Goins then fouled Gay during a 3-point attempt, and the San Diego State guard made all three foul shots. But Chism made two free throws at the other end with 7.4 seconds left and then got in front of Leonard on the final shot, reaching to the sky and slapping his hands together as it sailed harmlessly offline.
"Maybe it was fitting that it didn’t go in," said Fisher, whose team was 3 for 18 from beyond the arc. "It meant we had the chance, but we didn’t capitalize on it. It was a 3-pointer."
For Tennessee, it’s already a remarkable achievement in a season when four players were suspended — including Goins — and one of them was kicked off the team after police stopped them on New Year’s Day and found a gun, a bag of marijuana and an open container of alcohol in the car.
Two games later, with just six scholarship players and three walk-ons, the Vols beat top-ranked Kansas.