INDIANAPOLIS - It shouldn't end this way. That's what Tennessee basketball fans will no doubt claim after Friday night's 73-71 Midwest Regional semifinal loss to Michigan on Friday night.
Not after shaving 14 points off the Wolverines' 15-point cushion with 10:56 to go. Not after cutting nine points off a 10-point UM cushion with only 3:40 to go. Or seven points off na eight-point deficit with 2:22 to play.
To do all that, to have possession of the ball with 9.6 seconds left, trailing by one to last year's national runners-up and have it end on a charge call against UT junior forward Jarnell Stokes just seems patently wrong.
And it was clear that the Volunteers saw it as robbery, whether they actually said it or not.
"I thought he made a good move. The official called a charge," said UT coach Cuonzo Martin.
Said Stokes, who finished with 11 points, six rebounds and three steals: ""Uh, no, I don't think I fouled him."
But it was what else he said that may have doomed the Vols, ending their storybook march through March at least two wins shy of their goal to reach the first Final Four in school history.
Added Stokes: "Smart play by him to try and take the charge. He pretty much anticipated it."
Anticipated it? Absolutely, for this is what Jordan Morgan, the Wolverine who anticipated Stokes' drive to the basket, said of that play: "I know he likes to play bully ball. I just got down in my stance. That's just something I do. I take charges."
And Stokes did lower his shoulder. And Morgan did lose his footing. And official David Hall did make the call.
And that call's result did end the Vols' chances of victory.
It just shouldn't end the good feelings for this team and all it accomplished in winning 24 games, including eight of its final 10.
This is not to suggest that any college basketball team ever wants its season to end this way, however impressive that accomplishment for most programs. You want it to end on the season's final Monday night, confetti floating down from the rafters, "One Shining Moment" blaring from the loudspeakers, CBS's Jim Nantz about to interview your head coach just after you've won it all.
But this was a season to build on, a season to recruit from, a season hopefully to make the UT fan base realize how fortunate it is to have Martin for a coach.
Especially with so many moments to make you believe it might end differently, especially down the stretch. The Vols pulled within seven with 7:50 to go on a Jeronne Maymon layup. They had a chance to close within five with five to play but missed from close range. Then they had the ball down five with a little over a minute to go, but Jordan McRae couldn't coax a drive through the rim to pull within three.
Finally, they took over the ball down five with 41 seconds left, Maymon still on the floor despite having four fouls. Martin called time. A credible number of Big Orange loyalists in the crowd of 40,000 rose to their feet. There was still time. There was still hope.
McRae launched a long 3-pointer. It missed. A video replay determined that Michigan hit the ball before it went out of bounds. A Josh Richardson drive pulled the Vols within three points, closer than they'd been most of the game.
Then a steal and a McRae drive pulled them within one point with 10.8 seconds to go.
A Michigan turnover followed.
It was all there for a moment. A victory to be stolen. Then came the charge against Stokes.
And certain defeat.
"In a way, the way they were shooting in the first half, I'm surprised it wasn't worse," Stokes said later.
In a way, it could have been much worse at intermission, despite the 45-34 deficit. After all, Maymon hadn't scored a point at that time, Stokes had four points and the Vols were still somewhat in it thanks to a team-high 13 from Richardson and eight from McRae.
No offense to the rest of this UT team, but if anyone had said before the opening tip that Stokes and Maymon had four total points, most would have believed the game unofficially was over at the break. Especially if you'd also told them that the Wolverines had scored 45 points in the opening period.
To put that last stat in perspective, the Vols won six games this season giving up 50 points or fewer. In no other game this season had the Vols surrendered 45 points in the first half.
As he addressed the media Thursday afternoon, a little more than 24 hours before his Vols would face the Wolverines, Martin said of this moment, of the accomplishment of getting this far, "You've got to have fun with it. Obviously you're doing something right to get to this point. You've got seniors who will never play in this game again. You've got to enjoy it, embrace it."
Regardless of the ending, the Vols did just that. Too bad all anyone may remember is a referee's whistle that went against them when they could least afford it.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org