DAYTON, Ohio — Friday’s stage was bigger, and some of the players were different, but the disappointing drama never strayed too far from the script.
Tennessee's Tyler Smith (1) tries to slap the ball away from Oklahoma State's James Anderson (23) in the first half of a first-round NCAA men's college basketball tournament game Friday, March 20, 2009, in Dayton, Ohio. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)
The Tennessee men’s basketball team ended a frustrating season with another painful last-minute letdown — a 77-75 loss to Oklahoma State in an NCAA tournament first-round game at the University of Dayton Arena.
“I’ve always thought that things happen for a reason, and I still do, but I just don’t know why this team couldn’t put it together,” UT point guard Bobby Maze said. “This game, this season ... I just don’t understand it.
“There’s no reason we should have been in this situation, and there’s no reason we should have lost this game.”
Actually, there were several reasons.
Oklahoma State senior point guard Byron Eaton made sensational plays down the stretch, as so many other perimeter stars did this season against the Volunteers.
Tennessee (21-13) missed too many easy shots and surrendered too many to the Cowboys (23-11). The Vols — who rarely put two players shorter than 6-foot-6 on the floor at a time — were out-rebounded by a team that didn’t start anyone taller than 6-6.
Most importantly, though, UT just never seized the moment.
Junior forward Tyler Smith muscled through several Cowboys for a three-point play to give the Vols a 75-74 lead with 24 seconds left, but Eaton was equally clutch. The 5-11, 210-pounder bulled his way to the rim and made a layup with 7.2 seconds left despite a hard foul from the high-rising Smith.
Eaton sank the free throw, and Smith missed a contested trey just before the buzzer sounded on UT’s season — which peaked with a No. 8 national ranking but finished with loss to a No. 8 tournament seed.
“It's a shot that Tyler takes and makes a lot at the end of practice,” Vols coach Bruce Pearl said. “I just wanted to put the ball in his hands and let that be. I didn't want anybody else taking that last shot.”
Smith said his first preference was to drive down the left sideline and slash to the rim for a game-tying layup, but he was “walled off” and forced to the right wing.
“I make that shot all the time, and I thought I made that one,” Smith said. “It just bounced right out. I couldn’t believe it. Still can’t.”
Smith’s miss was simply the final lowlight of a season perceived as underachieving. The Vols didn’t finish their first winless NCAA tournament in Pearl’s four seasons until several close losses throughout the winter relegated them to a first-round power-conference fight.
“We got the seed we deserved,” UT sophomore center Brian Williams said. “We should have beaten more teams, but we didn’t close out games in the clutch, so we got what we deserved.
“Right now, we’re where we’re at, and we can’t do anything about it but improve for next season.”
UT made its first three 3-pointers Friday before missing 15 of its next 17. That turned a 32-25 lead into a 42-34 deficit early in the second half.
The Vols answered nearly every Oklahoma State rally, though, taking back the lead several times before Eaton’s final floater.
“We never quit,” UT junior forward Wayne Chism said. “There wasn’t any quit on this team. We just didn’t play as smart or as good as we should have, so we lost another one at the end.”
Oklahoma State plays Sunday against No. 1 seed Pittsburgh (29-4), which struggled to put away 16 seed East Tennessee State in the second of Dayton’s four first-round games.
“It has nothing to do with where your seed’s at,” UT junior wing J.P. Prince said. “It just has to do with our whole season. We just missed a lot of opportunities. We had a lot of games come down to one shot. I can think of another four or five games that came down to one or two possessions, and any one of them could have changed our entire season.
“It just didn’t go our way this year in the close games.”
Why it didn’t is the big question.
“That’s what we’ve got to figure out,” freshman guard Scotty Hopson said. “We’ve got to figure out why this season went down like it did, so we can figure out how to fix it and never leave this tournament so soon again.
“It shouldn’t have ended like this.”
Said Maze: “It’s just hard right now, because I just painted a different picture in my mind. I never thought I would see that it would be over this soon. I never thought about what would happen if we lost, because I was so confident that we were going to win this basketball game today.
“But we didn’t, so this is just real tough. I don’t even know what to do at this point.”