ST. LOUIS -- The irony of what was likely Evan Turner's final on-court moment as a collegian was clear to anyone who watched Tennessee claw its way past Ohio State, 76-73, here Friday night to earn its first-ever berth in the Elite Eight.
As the buzzer blared and joyous Volunteers whooped and pranced just feet away, a seated Turner blew off a helping hand from teammate Jon Diebler, scrambled to his feet and walked diagonally -- and directly -- off the court. The image of Turner, alone, with little support, sums up how Tennessee triumphed in the second half. The Vols' forceful display of size, depth and athleticism wore down and finally choked out the Buckeyes and their star.
Turner scored 21 of his team's 31 points after the break, but the Vols used 20 offensive rebounds and a 50-22 advantage in the paint to book a spot in Sunday's regional final against Michigan State. It was a victory for the better team, one that used all of its resources to great effect, especially its size.
"Every run that we made was when we went inside. Our guards made great passes and we played great defense," said center Brian Williams, who had a game-high 12 rebounds and some timely putbacks. "... It really showed tonight that our 10 or 12 is better than many 6s or 7s around the country."
The Vols' post tandem of Wayne Chism and Williams was the key to this victory. They combined for 31 points and 23 boards, including nine on the offensive glass. Their dominance helped fuel a second-half push that looked like a dunk-and-tip-drill instructional video. The perfect display of power basketball yielded 37 points on 15 two-point baskets and seven free throws. That's right, no threes.
It was just monotonous domination. Make, miss, tip-in, repeat. Ohio State had no answer for the force, and the chemistry, of the Vols' bigs.
"We know each other's moves so well, whichever way he turns, I'm going to the other side," said Chism. "We've done it so much in practice, that we know which way the ball's going to come off the rim."
What will go less noticed was the pair's defensive contributions, especially those of Chism. Facing undersized power forward David Lighty, who likes to use his speed off the dribble, Chism defended well, especially in screen-and-roll situations. Chism's lateral movement that enabled J.P. Prince's recovery on Ohio State's final possession was a big reason why that play blew up, with Turner finally forced to take two off-balance, low-hope threes. Prince's game-ending stuff was the final turn of the vice that Tennessee had been tightening for the better part of an hour.
"I think people missed the boat on Tennessee's defense," said Ohio State coach Thad Matta. "It's one of the best defenses we've gone against this year. How they use their length and the switching they were doing was very, very effective. They do a great job on the halfcourt defense, so a lot of times it looks like something's easy, but it isn't."
After halftime, nothing looked easy for the Buckeyes, but that wasn't the case in the first 20 minutes, where Ohio State shot almost 56 percent. William Buford and Jeremie Simmons knocked down a combined 5-of-7 from beyond the arc, providing the balance that the Buckeyes sorely lacked in the second stanza. Despite trailing by only three, the game's dynamic forced Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl to rattle his players' cages during the intermission.
"I challenged their toughness," Pearl said of his halftime talk. "I said I thought they were intimidated early in that game, and we were not the more physical team in the first half.
"I'm proud of the fact that we got the ball inside [in the second half]," Pearl added. "It's one thing to say you have the advantage and it's another thing to have the patience to pound it in there."
The battle in the paint should be an operative theme on Sunday when the Vols take on Michigan State, one of the nation's most dominant rebounding teams at both ends of the floor. The Spartans are sixth in the nation on the offensive glass and 22nd on the defensive end, adding up to a huge +9.0 rebounding margin this season. Even without leading Kalin Lucas, it should be a huge challenge.
Williams, though, is already thinking ahead, not just to the Elite Eight, but beyond, and to the light that might shine on the Tennessee men's program and its bigs.
"People doubt our frontcourt every game, but I mean we've been outplaying people a lot this season," Williams said. "It should be talked about, but it's not. Maybe if we win a national championship, people will talk about it."