Defense puts UT in Elite Eight

Defense puts UT in Elite Eight

March 27th, 2010 by Mark Wiedmer in Opinion Columns

ST. LOUIS -- Wayne Chism wasn't going down. Not this time. Not in the last March he will ever wear Tennessee Orange.

The Vols trailing Ohio State by six early in the second half of Friday night's Midwest Regional semifinal, Chism scored six straight UT points, pulled down three rebounds and disrupted at least one Buckeye shot in a span of two minutes.

Then he jumped high in the air, pumped his arms and screamed, "Let's go! Let's GO!"

And just like that, from six down to two behind, from desperation to inspiration, the Vols took off, shutting down Ohio State's offense and riddling their defense on the way to a 76-73 win and a spot in Sunday afternoon's regional final. They will play the Michigan State on Sunday at 2:20 EDT for a spot in next week's Final Four.

Tennessee's Melvin Goins, left, and Ohio State's Evan Turner scramble for a loose ball during the first half of an NCAA Midwest Regional college basketball game Friday, March 26, 2010, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

Tennessee's Melvin Goins, left, and Ohio State's Evan...

It is the first Elite Eight appearance for the Vols in school history.

"Blessed, I feel blessed," Chism said after leading UT with 22 points, 11 rebounds and high-decibel cheers. "We're going to live it up right now."

Inside the Edward Jones Dome the Big Orange Nation was living it up as if it was football season. Chants of "S-E-C! S-E-C!" filled the Arena of 30,000-plus fans, nearly holding their own with "Rocky Top."

And befitting a school where defense has been first, last and always on the gridiron, Bruce Pearl's fifth UT squad turned in a defensive gem of a second half to make the late General Robert Neyland proud.

After allowing OSU to shoot 56 percent in falling behind the Buckeyes 42-39 at intermission, UT endured a halftime tongue-lashing from Pearl, then held the second-seeded Bucks to 32 percent shooting in the final period.

"Normally, I'm very positive," Pearl said. "But I got after them really hard. Fifty-six percent shooting. Ohio State doesn't lose when they outshoot their opponent. If we're going to do that, we might as well go home. I really challenged their toughness."

From there on, the Vols challenged nearly every OSU shot, though game-high scorer Evan Turner did total 21 of his 31 points after intermission.

"It's one of the best defenses we've gone against this year," said losing coach Thad Matta, whose team finished the year 29-8 as the Vols improved to 28-8.

"Just sort of how they use their length and the switching that they were doing. They do a great job on the half-court defense. A lot of times it looks like something easy, but it really isn't."

And no one made it harder on Turner than UT senior J.P. Prince, who was Turner's second skin through most of the final half, then blocked the All-American's final shot at the horn.

"They got confident," Turner said. "They started making plays and they played out of their minds."

Now they're out of Sweet Sixteen prison for the first time in school history.

"We buckled down and got back to our identity, which is playing great half-court defense," Prince said. "We'll celebrate tonight, then we'll be back at work and it will be all business. We've still got another game to play."

A game they've never been able to play before.