Tennessee's depth benches Ohio State
For Bruce Pearl, it’s the biggest of challenges. The Tennessee coach believes in a team concept — the whole roster contributes. But his players don’t always buy into it.
"Kids would like to play more minutes," Pearl said. "Of course, they would. They want to be on the floor. They don’t want to be on the bench. So, I’ve got to constantly sell the concept of ‘We’ll play nine or 10 guys.’ … We all have five or six guys that are better than the other three or four. We all do. In order to develop talent and in order to develop your bench, you’ve got play them."
Pearl’s point was proven Friday night at the NCAA Midwest Regional.
Sixth-seeded Tennessee earned the school’s first trip to the Elite Eight with a 76-73 victory over No. 2 Ohio State at the Edward Jones Dome. In the win, the Volunteers’ first in six regional semifinals appearances, 10 players took the court and eight played significant minutes. By comparison, three of Ohio State’s starting five played the entire 40 minutes.
"We talked about our team vs. their top six or seven players," Pearl said. "There is a good tendency to try to shorten your bench as you get into tournament play. Ohio State has played great basketball. They played with great chemistry, and they’re a great, great champion of the Big Ten. (But) in the intensity of this game, I thought fatigue was a factor in the second half."
The numbers suggest Pearl was right. Ohio State shot 56 percent from the field in the first half, had two fewer rebounds than Tennessee and went into the intermission with a 42-39 lead. The second half was a different story. The Buckeyes shot 32 percent in the final 20 minutes, were out-rebounded, 24-14, and outscored in the paint, 28-10.
"Our defense, our depth and our seniors made a huge difference," Pearl said.
Tennessee, which avenged an 85-84 loss to Ohio State in the 2007 Sweet 16 in San Antonio, had many heroes Friday night. Leading the way were the Volunteers’ seniors. Forward Wayne Chism had four points in the first half but finished with a team-high 22 and 11 rebounds. Guard J.P. Prince added 14 points, and guard Bobby Maze also was in double figures with 10 points.
But there also was sophomore Cameron Tatum, who played 14 minutes off the bench and scored 11, all in the first half. And junior center Brian Williams, who contributed nine points and 12 rebounds.
Big contributions from all sides provided further proof of Tennessee’s depth.
"I would just say that this is a complete team," Maze said. "Every one of the guys on our team, you never know who is going to have a big game, who was going to make a shot. ... You never know when the opportunity is going to present itself on this team. I think that’s what makes it so great, is that we have so many different players and no one is ever complaining, always willing to help each other."
But it was far from easy for Tennessee. That’s because of Ohio State guard and Big Ten Player of the Year Evan Turner, who finished with a game-best 31 points, including 19 in the second half, and added seven rebounds and five assists for the Buckeyes.
Turner was Ohio State’s only source of scoring for the first 10 minutes, 43 seconds of the second half. Toward the end of the game, his three-pointer with 42 seconds left put Ohio State ahead 73-72.
Ten seconds later, Williams’ tip-in put the Volunteers back ahead 74-73. Two free throws from Maze made it a three-point game. Still, the Buckeyes in-bounded with 12 seconds left and had a chance to tie the game. On the final possession, Turner missed two three-point attempts. And, on his final shot, Turner tried unsuccessfully to draw a foul by leaning into Prince, who was credited with a block.
With Turner’s final miss, Ohio State’s season ended at 29-8.
"We had a chance to win it in the last 12 seconds," Turner said. "It was one of those games. It happens."
Prince credited Pearl with keeping the team composed in the final seconds.
"He said this game was going to go all the way to the end," Prince said. "He did a great job of preparing us. We knew we had to fight all the way to the end. We knew they weren’t going to give up."
The final horn set off an excited, but short celebration from the Volunteers, who improved to 28-8 and will play Sunday for a chance to go to the Final Four.
"We’re excited,” Prince said. “We know it’s not over. We still have another game to play. We just enjoy tonight, but tomorrow we’ll be right back, and it will be all business from that point on."
Pearl, who won his first Sweet 16 games after one loss with Wisconsin-Milwaukee and two with Tennessee, agreed with Prince.
"I am happy," he said. "I’m proud. I’m proud to tears. I can’t even begin to tell you how happy I am. But we’ve got work to do now. We’ve got to prepare for a game, and we’ll reflect when the season’s over."