A Prince of an effort on defense
J.P. Prince swats away Evan Turner as Tennessee moves on to first Elite Eight
ST. LOUIS -- With about a minute left in the game, a gasping J.P. Prince stood unsteadily in front of the Tennessee bench and asked his coach to call a timeout.
Bruce Pearl declined.
After spending much of the night guarding the national Player of the Year, Ohio State's brilliant Evan Turner, Prince was pooped. He put his hands on his head, then bent over and put them on his knees. Tennessee, nursing a two-point lead, would have to go this offensive possession 4-on-5.
"I said on offense, 'They'll take care of it; I'll save it all for defense,'" Prince said. "That's all I did. I knew that last two minutes I was going to make them work no matter what. I know nobody wanted it more than I did."
Wanted it. Got it. After summoning the energy to play defense one last time.
At the 59th second of the 39th minute of a tense Sweet 16 battle, he rose up on rubbery legs to stuff the potential tying 3-pointer as it left Turner's right hand.
Ballgame. Tennessee wins, 76-73, in a karmic payback for three years ago.
In the 2007 Sweet 16, Ohio State star Greg Oden rose up to block a drive by Ramar Smith at the buzzer. This time, it was the Buckeyes star eating the leather and ending up on the losing end -- while Tennessee reaches a new Rocky Top in men's basketball, advancing to its first-ever regional final.
"I'm proud," Pearl said. "I'm proud to tears. I can't even begin to tell you how happy I am. But we've got work to do now."
The fact that the work continues is a remarkable reality, given where Tennessee stood on Jan. 1, 2010. Four Volunteers had been pulled over in a rental car, and police found marijuana and guns in the vehicle. The players were suspended for varying lengths of time except for the perceived best player on the team, Tyler Smith, who was dismissed.
At that point, you couldn't find anyone in orange who believed this season would still be ongoing in the last days of March. To make it happen against the No. 2 seed Buckeyes, Tennessee needed an all-out assault on the interior -- and an all-out collapse from Turner's supporting cast.
The taller Volunteers exploited Ohio State's four-guard lineup by forcing the ball inside. Final rebounding totals: Tennessee 41, Ohio State 29, as the Vols had more offensive rebounds (20) than the Buckeyes had defensive (16). Final points-in-the-paint totals: Tennessee 50, Ohio State 22.
"I'm proud of the fact that we got the ball inside," Pearl said. "It's one thing to say you have the advantage, and it's another thing to have the patience to pound it in there."
They pounded it in there with the persistence of a blacksmith. With 6-foot-5 David Lighty trying to check 6-10 Wayne Chism, Tennessee knew right where to go. Chism responded with 22 points (18 in the second half) and 11 rebounds.
Ohio State, meanwhile, nearly rebroke Turner's back from the effort of carrying the team.
Turner finished with 31 points, 21 of them after halftime. The rest of the Buckeyes scored 10 second-half points. Turner was 7-of-15 from the field after intermission. The rest of the Buckeyes were 3-of-16. No other Ohio State player scored a second-half point until the 9:17 mark, and no other Ohio State player made a field goal until the 7:37 mark.
William Buford had a big first half, then took a series of questionable shots on his way to an 0-for-5 second half. Lighty made two huge shots in the final minutes, but until then had scored just four points. And sharpshooter Jon Diebler had a nightmarish game, missing 7 of 8 shots.
"I think it was shots [not] falling," Lighty said. "I mean, it just didn't happen. It's like that sometimes. You've got to step up and make it, though, when games are on the line and coming down to the wire."
Down to the wire, Ohio State looked like what it was: a short team with no depth. Thad Matta's inability to cultivate any depth this season was a concern -- and ultimately became a fatal flaw.
"We all have five or six guys that are better than the other three or four," Pearl said. "We all do. And you've just got to, in order to develop talent and in order to develop your bench, you've got to play them."
Despite the manpower disadvantage, Ohio State had the ball in the hands of The Man on the final possession. Turner has been more clutch than Jack Bauer this season, and he got two looks at tying shots.
But neither was a good look. He shot a leaner from the corner that missed, then came up with a loose rebound at the top of the key for the final try.
Then up rose J.P. Prince, forgetting he was ever tired and sending Tennessee where it has never gone before.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.