Evan Turner sat at midcourt, mesmerized. Several teammates ventured over to the junior, offering to help him to his feet, but Turner refused assistance, opting to bypass postgame handshakes and head directly for the locker room.
The reality of a hard-fought, season-ending loss didn’t take long to sink in for the Big Ten Player of the Year, competing in scarlet and gray for perhaps the final time.
Tennessee, the No. 6 seed in the Midwest region, used a late surge in the closing minutes to knock off No. 2 Ohio State, 76-73, before a Rockytop-giddy crowd Friday at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis.
The Volunteers advance to the Elite Eight, where they will face Michigan State on Sunday.
“We just didn’t get the job done,” junior center Dallas Lauderdale said. “We didn’t get the rebounds. They were going to get the ball. They were attacking us down low.”
The meeting was the fourth in the last three years between the Buckeyes and Volunteers, and all four have been decided by five points or fewer.
This time, Tennessee clenched a three-point lead as the Buckeyes gained possession with 12 seconds left. Turner had two looks at the basket, but both shots – and the team as a whole – fell short.
“You want the ball in the hands of your best player,” said junior Jon Diebler, who made just one of his eight shot attempts. “[Turner] is the best player in the country. We will live with having the ball in the best player’s hands with 12 seconds left.”
Despite the lack of a whistle, Turner felt there was contact on his desperation heaves.
“I definitely liked the look I got,” he said. “I thought it was going to be like an and-one shot. I thought I was going to get a call.”
The Buckeyes certainly had their share of chances, well before their inability to convert at the game’s conclusion. After converting 56 percent of its first half field goals, OSU made just 32 percent of its second half shot attempts.
The most evident determining factor, however, was the difference in post production between the teams. Tennessee out-rebounded Ohio State by a 41-29 margin, while outscoring the Buckeyes in the paint by a 50-22 advantage.
“They just got in the paint too easily,” Diebler said. “And when we collapsed, they did a good job of passing. With their height and athleticism, they’re able to see the floor a lot easier.”
Buckeye forward David Lighty battled foul trouble throughout much of the game, forcing coach Thad Matta to dig a bit deeper than normal into his seldom-used bench. The OSU defense suffered, as the Buckeyes were overmatched on the boards.
“You can’t worry about fouls, especially at this time of the year,” Lighty said. “You just have to keep playing hard and have backside help. But our defense just wasn’t what it used to be today.”
Senior forward Wayne Chism paced the Volunteers with 22 points and 11 rebounds, unleashing his relentless motor after disposing of his oddly positioned headband at halftime.
“All of our bigs, Brian Williams, Kenny Hall, Wayne Chism, it was electric tonight,” Tennessee guard Scotty Hopson said. “Their success down low was huge for us. We all made a conscious effort to rebound and it all worked out.”
Ohio State’s defense didn’t play poorly the entire night, though. The Buckeyes jumped out to an 11-4 lead thanks to seven quick points by sophomore William Buford and several turnovers forced by the OSU defense.
Tennessee fought back and the teams traded buckets until OSU entered the locker room at halftime clinging to a 42-39 lead.
The Buckeyes extended the lead to six with 15:39 to play, but a porous defense and stagnant offense plagued them down the stretch. Turner scored Ohio State’s first 14 points after halftime, as his teammates struggled to find a rhythm.
“[The Volunteers] do a great job on the half-court defense,” Matta said. “A lot of times it looks like something’s easy, but it really isn’t. … We just didn’t make shots in the second half.”
Turner finished his junior season with typical stat sheet-stuffing totals of 31 points, seven rebounds and five assists. For the national Player of the Year favorite, despite its abrupt ending, the season won’t be one he looks at with disappointment.
“I had the most fun I’ve ever had playing basketball,” he said. “I think we grew as a team. We genuinely care for each other and have a lot of fun. To overcome the situations we had, proved a lot of people wrong and just believing in each other was one of the best times in my life.
“Right now, it’s tough to go through, but I feel like we did a lot of great stuff and we had a great season.”