The Vols' last three setbacks of 2008-09 came by scores of 70-67 to Alabama, 64-61 to Mississippi State and 77-75 to the Cowboys.
Tennessee appeared on the verge of winning a tight game this time, taking a 75-74 lead on an acrobatic three-point play by Tyler Smith with 24 seconds left. OSU's Byron Eaton answered with an equally acrobatic three-point play to put OSU up with 7.2 seconds left, however, then Smith missed a 3-pointer just before the buzzer, sealing the Vols' fate.
Ninth-seeded Tennessee finishes 21-13. Eighth-seeded Oklahoma State improves to 23-11 and will face top-seeded Pittsburgh Sunday in second-round play.
Although this was by far the youngest and least experienced Vol squad of Bruce Pearl's four-year tenure, that didn't soften the sting of another tough loss.
“I would say I did not get this team playing as well as it was capable of playing with enough consistency,” Pearl said. “It achieved at a high level but we probably will walk away from this campaign and say we left a little bit on the table.”
The Vols limited OSU's leading scorer, James Anderson, to just 10 points – 8.6 below his average. They couldn't contain Eaton, however, as the Cowboy point guard finished 7 of 10 from the floor en route to 20 points.
“Byron Eaton off the bounce was very, very effective,” Pearl said. “Both from a strategy standpoint by the coaches, as well as an execution standpoint by the players, we did a lousy job on ball-screen defense.”
Marshall Moses, OSU's tallest player at 6-6, made 8 of 10 field-goal tries and added 16 points. Terrel Harris chipped in 15 points for the Cowboys, who have won nine of their last 11 games.
Smith scored 21 points to pace Tennessee, including a 10-for-10 performance from the foul line. Cameron Tatum came off the bench to chip in 12 points. Wayne Chism, UT's 6-9 center, added 11 points but sank only 4 of 14 shots – 3 of 9 beyond the arc and just 1 of 5 inside it.
Simply put, Tennessee couldn't exploit its advantages and couldn't stop OSU from exploiting its advantages.
Despite a significant edge in size, Tennessee lost the backboard battle 31-28 and was outscored 28-24 on points in the paint. Conversely, the Cowboys took full advantage of their superior quickness, repeatedly beating UT off the dribble en route to shooting 56.6 percent (30 of 53) from the field. Tennessee shot just 42.9 percent (24 of 56).
As happened often this season, the Vols' lack of patience cost them dearly. Rather than work the ball inside to exploit their superior height, they fired 3-pointers – launching 10 more shots from beyond the arc than inside it. UT finished at 33.3 percent (11 of 33) on the former and 56.5 percent (13 of 23) on the latter.
Oklahoma State also shot 33.3 percent from 3, going 7 of 21, but killed Tennessee with dribble-drives, going 23 of 32 (71.8 percent) inside the arc.
Junior guard Josh Tabb sat out the first half due to a disciplinary matter. Pearl declined comment on the situation other than to say the action was due to “a violation of team rules.”
The 13 losses is Tennessee's most under Pearl, whose previous squads went 22-8, 24-11 and 31-5. Asked if this was a hard year for him, the coach paused thoughtfully before answering.
“Had we not come back and beaten Mississippi State, Florida and South Carolina on the road (in late February, early March) this would've been a very hard year for me,” Pearl said. “But we did win those three games and we did win the (SEC) East for the third time in four years.
“And we did get to the conference tournament championship. It was disappointing to not win that game because I thought we had a chance at that point to prove we may have been the best team in the SEC.
“This season could've been a little better but it could've been a lot worse.”