They got under-seeded as an 11 seed, put in a play-in game. I texted friends reminding them that the play-in game helped propel VCU to a Final Four. And though I projected optimism, I secretly had them losing to Duke in the third round of my bracket.
Then they shocked Iowa in OT. They followed that up by destroying UMass and Mercer. They were in the Sweet 16 with a favorable match-up against the Michigan Wolverines. The pessimism felt in Vol country in mid-February was quickly forgotten and replaced with unbridled enthusiasm. Bruce Pearl wasn’t coming back and no [sane] Vol fans wanted him back, any more.
On Friday night, I went to dinner with my parents. We got sushi. It took 20 minutes of waiting for them to put the game on. It wasn’t in HD. Thanks to the circa-1989 quality picture, I couldn’t tell what the score was. I got out my phone, looked at the score and quickly realized the Vols were in a drought and on the wrong end of a loss. It started raining.
Tennessee couldn’t hit anything. We all agreed that they would play better if we watched at home. At half-time, we raced home. We beat half-time home. My dad remarks that he thinks it’s over. I tell him it’s a game of runs. I’m not sure I believe it when I say it but “Tennessee has another one left in them”.
We turned on the game, my dogs barked with joy in our reappearance. I gave them a treat and hoped they could wait until the end of the game for a walk. Tennessee starts a couple runs. They get derailed by Michigan threes. My dad says “it’s tough, still don’t see it”.
Then a real run. I’m not sure what happens but it’s like Jordan McRae finally realized he’s the best player on the court. He steals the ball, sets up a nice Jarnell Stokes dunk then goes on a 5 point run almost all by himself. Tennessee is within 5 points. My dad is beginning to believe.
Then a Tennessee turnover. All hope is beginning to leave all of us. I wonder where Chris Lofton is. Michigan has a chance to put the game away. Turnover. Hope and a timeout. Google Chris Lofton. Europe. Tennessee responds with a dumb three, miss. Hope is really low. Then Michigan turns it over again. Everything that can go wrong for Michigan, is. Josh Richardson takes advantage, makes a great move and lay-up. Tennessee is down 3. Hope is renewed but still low. They haven’t fouled enough, only 3 second-half team fouls. Jordan McRae scores. Tennessee is down 1. But with 10 seconds left and two fouls to give before the bonus, hope is low. Michigan inexplicably steps out-of-bounds on the inbound. Tennessee is going to win.
There is no way they don’t.
Then, the refs.
Jarnell Stokes receives the inbounds pass, he spins and the Michigan defender falls before any contact. Ref whistle. It’s a block. Stokes to the line… Nope. It’s a charge. 2 fouls, 2 Stauskas free throws and a full-court heave later, the game is over and Tennessee’s remarkable comeback falls short.
We’re flustered. Wondering how a ref can insert themselves in a game that late on a fifty-fifty call. Then my dad says “They should be proud. They never gave up. When everyone [including their biggest fans] thought all was lost, they found a way to claw back in. No shame in that.” And while he didn’t know it, that is about the best way to explain the 2014 season, one of the best in Tennessee history. Well done. Cuonzo.
Mike Langston can be followed @LangstonLCB.