By Jimmy Hyams
Tennessee stormed back from an 18-point second-half deficit against Purdue in a Sweet 16 game Thursday night in Louisville.
The opportunity was there for a second-ever trip to the Elite Eight.
But a couple of tough calls went against the Vols and they couldn’t make enough plays down the stretch in a gut-wrenching 99-94 overtime defeat.
Tennessee had 3-point leads twice late in the game. But couldn’t get any all-important key stops.
Grant Williams’ put-back dunk with 8.8 seconds gave the Vols an 82-80 lead with 8.8 seconds left and his block of a streaking Carsen Edwards went out of bounds with 2.5 seconds left. My replay supported the call.
One stop, one more Elite Eight.
But Purdue barely escaped a five-second call and Edwards maneuvered around Lamont Turner for a 3-point try from the sideline and was barely fouled.
Turner argued that Edwards kicked his leg out, but Edwards leg didn’t extend much, thus, the close call went against Turner, who grazed Edwards. Turner would have been better served if he’d forced Edwards to make a catch with a pass over Turner’s head, not to the side, where Edwards could square up for a shot.
Edwards made two of three free throws to force overtime, and Purdue outplayed the Vols 17-12 in the extra period to advance to the Elite Eight for the first time since 2000.
Tennessee was denied, despite the gallant comeback.
Turner’s foul was costly, but so were the Vols’ 12 missed free throws on 24 attempts (including 4 of 13 in the first half), and the inability to stop red-hot Ryan Cline, who had 27 points on 7 of 10 3-point shooting, and the awful start that looked like a continuation of the second-half of the Iowa meltdown.
Not doubt, this was a highly disappointing loss for Tennessee.
But not a disappointing season. Far from it.
In fact, it was arguably the greatest season in UT men’s basketball history: 31 wins tied a single season record, an unprecedented four weeks ranked No. 1, a win over a top-ranked team, two wins over Kentucky, a 15-3 SEC record, 19 consecutive wins, undefeated at home.
Yet it was a season without a banner: No SEC regular-season title or SEC tournament title or Four Final or Elite 8. Making the Sweet 16 is nice, but UT had done that seven other times.
One stat that haunts the Vols: They are 1-6 all-time in Sweet 16s since 1980 – tied for the worst record among teams with at least six Sweet 16 appearances.
But at a time when UT sports hasn’t had a lot to cheer about over the past decade – except for softball – Rick Barnes’ team was a shining light.
A collection of mainly three-star players won a combined 57 games over the past two years – a school record. They delighted fans with their hustle, shooting, passing, defense, unselfish play and character.
This team was so special, many fans jumped on the bandwagon and enjoyed the ride at every home and away game over the past few months until the ride was over.
It was a tough way to end the season, but the future remains bright.
If Jordan Bone and Williams remain in school, and with the addition of five-star guard Josiah James, and the hopeful development of Yves Pons, John Fulkerson, Derrick Walker and DJ Burns, the Vols could field another top 10 team next season, if not top five.
Even if Bone and Williams don’t return, the Vols could be an NCAA tournament team behind Jordan Bowden and Turner and James.
Barnes has built a program that is sustainable.
Even if the loss to Purdue stings for a while.