Two games decided by two total points
Two games decided by a total of two points. The rest of the bracket will have a hard time surpassing Thursday night's excitement in San Antonio, writes Gene Wojciechowski.
SAN ANTONIO -- Two games separated by a total of two points. Memphis 65, Texas A&M 64 ... Ohio State 85, Tennessee 84. What's left of the Sweet 16 field is free to improve on Thursday night's South Regional semifinals, but the bar has been set higher than the roof of the Alamodome.
It was classic NCAA Tournament stuff here at the home of last stands. The top-seeded and No. 1-ranked Buckeyes trailed by as many as 20 points late in the first half. Freshman center Greg Oden had three fouls and quite possibly was 20 minutes away from the end of his college career. Ohio State's hopes of an Elite Eight appearance and a Final Four run were in crash-and-burn mode.
But then Tennessee, which had shot 55.9 percent in the first half, started missing everything. Three-pointers. Chippy layups. Mid-rangers. Leaners. Drives. Free throws. Prayers.
Meanwhile, Ohio State was on its way to a comeback for the hoops ages. The Buckeyes made 14 of 24 shots, including five treys, in the second half. And they did it with Oden playing tag with the bench, as OSU coach Thad Matta had no choice but to sit the likely future No. 1 NBA draft pick for long stretches of the game due to foul trouble.
Oden's 18 minutes of court time were his lowest of the season. He finished with nine points, more fouls than rebounds (four to three), and four blocks. It was his last block, though -- which came as time, and Tennessee -- expired, that saved the Buckeyes' season. He sent Ramar Smith's desperation leaner almost into the pep band area, and that was that.
"I'm proud of our guys, [but] half pissed off at them [over] how we started," Matta said. He added later, "I think it's funny in this tournament the two most important words are 'survive' and 'advance.' And we've been very, very fortunate the last couple games to do those two things."
Meanwhile, fifth-seeded Tennessee, which was trying to reach its first-ever Elite Eight, is gone from the tournament. The Vols players filed off the court in stunned silence. Well, not all silence. UT's Ryan Childress, who hit four 3s in the game, yelled a naughty word. Can you blame him?
Ohio State now has escaped twice in the last five days from would-be losses. Xavier had the Buckeyes, but then didn't. Tennessee had them, but couldn't hold on to the double-digit halftime lead, or to a dinky three-point lead with 3:37 remaining.
"Their body language was like they already had the game won," said Ron Lewis, OSU's senior guard.
Tennessee said otherwise.
"We never got overconfident because we're all in the locker room at halftime," said Vols senior Dane Bradshaw. "But defensively, we didn't have that sense of urgency."
Ohio State did. For the most part, they put a glove on Tennessee's offense in the second half. The Vols helped out by missing eight of their 17 free throws for the game. The Buckeyes, on the other hand, made 23 of 35.
Ohio State has now played Tennessee twice this season -- and won by a combined three points. This means, well, nothing this time of year.
"We've proven that we can beat the best teams in the country," said UT coach Bruce Pearl. "We've also proven that we can come close to beating the best teams in the country."
The Buckeyes are one of the best because they refuse to accept logic. They could have, should have, been out of this tournament last Saturday. But here they are, preparing to play Memphis for a trip to Atlanta and the Final Four.
The Tigers also deserve backslaps for the way they survived and advanced. They overcame a Final Four-caliber A&M team and an A&M crowd that outnumbered Memphis fans by 20 to 1 ... 50 to 1? More?
No wonder, as Memphis coach John Calipari waited to do his postgame interview with CBS, that he walked toward the Tigers' section of the Alamodome, such as it was, and pointed at them. And kept pointing.
"We ... played guys I haven't played all year, in this game, in this environment," said Calipari. "And in the end, made a couple of free throws, made a couple of baskets and walked away with a W in front of 30,000 Aggies, which makes it even more of an amazing thing."
Calipari exaggerated the size of the crowd, but not by much.
Meanwhile, A&M's players took turns blaming themselves for the loss. Acie Law IV missed a layup with 47 seconds that could have given the Aggies a three-point lead.
"That play cost us the game," he said.
Next up was center Antanas Kavaliauskas, who dominated in the post, especially in the first half. Kavaliauskas finished with 17 points, but lost out in a frenzied fight for a rebound near the end of the game (Memphis' Antonio Anderson was fouled during a putback shot, and subsequently made the game-winning free throws).
"It was my job to get a rebound and I didn't get it," said Kavaliauskas. "It cost us the game."
Adding to the drama was a game-clock issue with only seconds remaining, but the officials appeared to have made the right call by pulling 1.1 seconds off the clock after a tipped inbounds pass bounced out of bounds.
Four games remain in both the East and Midwest Regionals. Good luck topping this.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com.
ESPN TOP HEADLINES
- Belichick says Patriots 'followed every rule'
- Kaminsky, No. 6 Wisconsin prevail in overtime
- Kiffin to remain Bama OC, won't jump to NFL
- Waiters: Not scapegoat for Cavs' early issues