ST. LOUIS -- Bobby Maze should have felt the most pressure of his college basketball career. The Tennessee senior point guard stood on the foul line with 12.9 seconds to play in Friday night's Midwest Regional semifinal game against Ohio State, the Volunteers ahead by a slender point.
Hit one of the two free throws and the Buckeyes could still win on a 3-pointer, nine of which they already had drilled. Miss both and OSU's Evan Turner almost certainly would slither through the Vols for one more basket, given that he'd already scored 31 points.
But Maze didn't flinch. In fact, he said he wasn't nearly as nervous as he has been during Big Orange practices, when the guards often challenge the big men to free-throw contests.
"I actually feel a lot more pressure in those practices," he said. "Because if they beat us they make fun of us. There's a lot of pressure in those."
So Maze swished the first one Friday. Then he swished the second one.
Just like that, the Vols defeated the second-seeded Buckeyes 76-73 to advance to a regional semifinal for the first time in program history. It also was the first time in eight tries that UT defeated a top-three seed in the NCAA tournament.
Of course there is little time to celebrate both the making and breaking of history. Come Sunday afternoon the Vols will try for a spot in the Final Four.
"I'm proud to tears," said UT coach Bruce Pearl, now in his fifth season. "And I'm all for the kids celebrating. But the coaches have to work tonight. We've got a lot of work to do now."
These Vols have been a work in progress since November, when they barely lost to highly regarded Purdue in the Virgin Islands before being blown out at lightly regarded Southern Cal in December. Ever since, through the New Year's Day arrests that ultimately cost the team its captain, Tyler Smith, through the electric upset of then-No. 1 Kansas, through two losses to Vanderbilt and an SEC tourney humiliation against Kentucky, this team has been equal parts fun and frustration.
"This class has really worked hard to take this team where it is now," said Wayne Chism, who worked hardest to fill the stat sheet, finishing with 22 points and 11 rebounds.
"After all the adversity we had to face, all the dismissals we had, all the stuff we went through, this team has actually stayed together through everything."
Then there was J.P Prince, who blocked Turner's final fling goalward at the horn to preserve the win.
"I was tired," Prince said afterward. "I just knew that on offense they'd take care of it. I just tried to save it all for defense. That's all I did. I knew the last 10 minutes I was going to make them work no matter what. I know nobody wanted it more than I did."
But he also said, "It was an overall team effort. We knew our team could compete with anybody. We planned as a team and we played as a team. We deserve this."
If they do, it might be because no one understands the importance of team quite like Pearl.
"We talked about our team versus their top six or seven guys," he said, knowing no one on the Vols played more than 35 minutes (Chism), while Turner and two other Buckeyes went the full 40.
"In the intensity of the game, I thought fatigue was a factor in the second half. Pretty much right from the jump street in the second half, our defense, our depth and our seniors really made a huge difference."
But it wasn't only Chism, Maze and Prince. Fourth-year junior Cameron Tatum rose from the bench to score all 11 of his points in the opening half. Reserve point guard Melvin Goins spelled Maze well enough to finish with four points and four assists. Josh Bone hit a 3-pointer.
"Look at Josh Bone," Maze said. "He didn't play for seven or eight games, and now he's played two straight. You never know when the opportunity is going to present itself on this team."
But Pearl knows. He's always known. That's one reason why he played 10 while the Buckeyes were barely using seven.
But there's another reason.
"I talked to the guys," Pearl explained. "I said, 'J.P., do you want to play 40 minutes of this game? Do you want Cameron not to play? I want you to answer that question. Tonight you can play 40 and Cameron can sit. Are you OK with that?'
"And you know what he said? J.P said, 'No, I'm not.' Anyway, here's what I'm getting to. Sure, kids would like to play more minutes. They all would. They don't want to sit the bench. So I've got to constantly sell the concept that we'll play eight or nine guys. I just think it makes for better chemistry."
It's also making for a better NCAA tournament run than ever before in the history of UT basketball.