Friday, March 26, 2010
Friday's early games continue the madness
By Eamonn Brennan
Thursday night's early session gave us two things: A down-to-the-wire game between a No. 2 and a No. 6 seed and a dominating defensive performance that sent a plucky, beloved underdog home.
Sound familiar? It should. We just saw the exact same thing happen.
There were a few differences, though. For one, tonight's No. 2 seed didn't win its thriller. Instead, Ohio State -- considered by many to be the main non-Kentucky favorite left in the tournament -- suffered its first loss in 10 games, falling to Tennessee 76-73 in the Sweet 16. The Volunteers' win sends Tennessee to the Elite Eight for the first time in its school's history. The loss sends the Buckeyes, and U.S. Basketball Writers Association national player of the year Evan Turner, back to Columbus.
The loss caps what has to be considered a disappointing tournament for Turner. The guard struggled throughout Ohio State's first two wins, even against lowly No. 15-seed UCSB; he appeared constantly frustrated by the Gauchos', and later Georgia Tech's, defensive pressure. That theme emerged again Friday night. Tennessee rotated a variety of players on Turner, from 5-foot-11 guard Melvin Goins to 6-foot-7 forward J.P. Prince.
For most of the night, Turner weathered the storm well. (Turner finished with 31 points on 10-of-23 shooting with seven rebounds and five assists. Not too shabby.) But then Tennessee made its run, thanks to 18 second-half points by Wayne Chism, and Turner was charged with getting a three-pointer in the final 15 seconds of the game. The harassment won the day: Turner couldn't get a clean look from the corner on his first attempt. His second was a turnaround as time expired, and what originally looked like a foul wasn't -- Prince blocked it cleanly. And just like that, the Buckeyes' title bid was over.
It a remarkable win for Tennessee, given how poorly Tennessee started the game. Ohio State opened a 13-6 lead in the opening minutes. Tennessee looked overmatched. But if there's one thing we should know by now about these Tennessee Volunteers: They're down, but they're never out.
By all rights, this team shouldn't even be here. Bruce Pearl lost his best player, senior forward Tyler Smith, to dismissal early in the year, and logic dictated that Tennessee would quietly fade away. Not so much. The Vols almost immediately upset Kansas in Knoxville, beat Kentucky a few months later and, now, thanks largely to a 55.6 offensive rebounding percentage and a few key stops down the stretch, Tennessee is closer to a national title than anytime before in its history. Down, but never out. It still applies.
On the other side of the bracket, well, wow. A night after Kentucky gave Cornell a fresh dose of cold, hard reality, Baylor applied the same treatment to the upstart Gaels. Halftime score? 46-17, Baylor. The Bears did just about everything right -- they contained Samhan low, they stretched their athletic zone and kept St. Mary's from getting good looks, they got a ton of steals and a ton of fast break points, and they made their shots. It was a thoroughly impressive performance.
Unfortunately for the rest of us, the loss means saying goodbye to Omar Samhan, one of the more entertaining players in college basketball. Samhan's game was smooth; we'll miss him.
Baylor will move on, though, and will play the winner of the Duke-Purdue game. Whichever team wins, they'll have their hands full; Baylor's Friday night was as good a 40 minutes of basketball as any team has played in this NCAA tournament to date.