ST. LOUIS -- The scene on the floor of the Edward Jones Dome didn't need dialogue. Tennessee basketball players knelt down, heads hung low, frowns all around. Around them danced Michigan State Spartans, their Nikes barely touching the court following State's 70-69 victory over the Vols in the NCAA Tournament's Midwest Regional final.
The single free throw made by the Spartans' Raymar Morgan with 1.8 seconds to play that proved the game-winner will long be debated within the Volunteer state. Was this the one that got away or the one taken away by an official's whistle?
As senior guard J.P. Prince, who was called for that foul by ref John Cahill, said afterward, "I just think at the end of the game you let the players win the game. It was a physical game. It's just unfortunate that he called it."
And perhaps because of that, seven words from UT coach Bruce Pearl following the school's failed attempt to reach its first Final Four will echo throughout Big Orange Country for years to come.
Said Pearl, "This one here won't go away forever."
Yet it slipped away in bits and pieces long before the officials whistled Prince for fouling Morgan as he attempted to shoot what would have been a game-winning layup or dunk.
UT center Brian Williams soiled an otherwise outstanding afternoon that included 11 points, nine rebounds and two blocks by air-balling two second-half free throws. Prince turned it over four times to water down his 12 points and five assists. Scotty Hopson scored 10 points but missed three free throws, including a crucial one with 11 seconds to go that left the game tied at 69 after he had hit the first one to pull the Vols even.
"We just made a couple of mistakes," said Wayne Chism, who led the Vols with 13 points in his final college game. "We really weren't doing what we were supposed to do."
They had begun the game doing everything they were supposed to do on offense. They hit their first six shots, including four 3-pointers, two of those from Chism. They led 11-6 in less than three minutes. They led 41-39 at intermission.
"We didn't do a great job (early)," said State coach Tom Izzo afterward. "We kept telling them in huddles, 'They're going to cool off.' The big key for us was that we weathered that storm."
But the storm returned to start the second half, the Vols moving ahead 50-45 with 15:45 to go after a Chism 3-pointer. Then the skies cleared for the Spartans, who went on a 14-1 run to grab a 59-51 advantage. The Vols fought back to grab one-point leads twice at 62-61 and 64-63 but they never again held the ball with a chance to extend the lead.
"Offensively we shot 51 percent (24-of-47) and 43 percent from the 3-point line (7-of-16)," said Pearl. "The numbers look pretty good. But Michigan State doesn't let you get anything easy. And I thought we missed some shots. A couple of them were pretty good looks we didn't get."
One of those looks came with the game knotted at 66 and 3:09 on the clock. Following media timeout 11 seconds earlier, Chism rose for a contested layup along the baseline. He missed, then watched State's Durrell Summers -- who led all scorers with 21 -- bury a 3-pointer on the other end for a 69-66 MSU lead.
"When Durrell knocked that shot down I pretty much thought the game was in our hands," said the Spartans' Draymond Green, who finished with 13 points, same as Morgan. "I knew we were good enough free-throw shooters and we were poised enough that if they did get back in the game, we were poised enough to make a play down the stretch."
And so they did. After allowing Williams to ram home a missed Chism 3-pointer to pull UT within one, State caught a break when Hopson missed his second free throw that would have given the Vols the lead.
In the timeout before Hopson's miss, Izzo had drawn up a play that Green didn't like.
"The play he drew up, I knew I wasn't going to run it," the sophomore forward said afterward. "So I told Raymar, 'I'm going to find you, I'm going to find you.' And he was wide open so I swung him the ball."
Seeing Morgan all by himself under the basket, Prince went after him. Maybe he fouled and maybe he didn't, but Pearl wasn't ready to blame it on the officials.
"We didn't get back defensively (after the missed free throw)," he said. "We didn't get matched up properly. They got the ball way too close to the basket. They got way too good a look. And so regardless of the contact, it was a foul. If we did a better job getting matched up, then we don't put ourselves in that position."
When Morgan swished the first free throw to give the Spartans all the points they would need, both Izzo and Pearl called 30-second timeouts. Morgan was instructed to miss the second, hoping the ensuing fight for the ball would kill the clock. Instead, the Vols' Williams rebounded it cleanly, leaving the Vols 1.6 seconds for a final play. When Prince missed a desperation heave from just inside midcourt, the Spartans were headed to their sixth Final Four in 12 years under Izzo.
But for Prince and many UT fans it will always be a questionable ending.
"For it to end like that with one second," said Prince, "That's just one of the most painful things."