ST. LOUIS – In the end, Evan Turner could not do it all.
The junior guard from Ohio State scored a game-high 31 points, but the second-seeded Buckeyes dropped a 76-73 decision to Tennessee.
"I don't know if I've ever been more proud of a basketball team," OSU head coach Thad Matta said. "They had a belief about them that was contagious."
After the game, he remained mum on his potential return for his senior season. Turner is widely projected as one of the top picks in this year’s NBA draft.
His three-pointer gave the Buckeyes (29-8) their final lead of the game with 42 seconds remaining, but the Volunteers (28-8) scored the last four points of the game to earn the victory. Still, Turner had a chance for some last-second magic.
The Vols pushed it to a three-point lead with 12.9 seconds remaining and a deflection on the ensuing inbounds pass gave OSU and Turner 12.6 seconds to try and tie the game. After bringing it up the court, Turner wound up with the ball in the left corner and attempted a three-pointer that did not fall.
He came up with the offensive rebound with about three seconds remaining and almost dished to junior guard Jon Diebler but instead kept it for himself. Drawing contact with a Tennessee defender, he launched a three-pointer from the top of the circle that again did not fall.
Lying on his back as time expired, Turner could only watch as the Vols celebrated their first Elite 8 appearance in school history. Picking himself up off the court, he headed immediately to the OSU locker room without a second thought.
"I had no problem with him taking the shots," Matta said. "That young man's made so many huge shots for us. I'm going to put the ball in his hands and we'll roll with it from there."
Asked if he was fouled on the attempt, Turner said, "They didn't call it, so I guess it wasn't a foul" before adding that the Buckeyes should not have been in that situation in the first place.
Tennessee hit on 15 of 31 shots (48.4 percent) in the second half while OSU was 10 for 31 (32.3 percent). Volunteers head coach Bruce Pearl said he felt the Buckeyes and their short rotation got tired.
"In the intensity of this game, I thought fatigue was a factor in the second half," he said.
OSU played the majority of the first half without one of its key players. Junior forward David Lighty picked up his second foul at the 13:43 mark and immediately headed to the bench for the remainder of the half.
In his place stepped seldom-used reserve senior Jeremie Simmons, who had scored nine points in his previous seven appearances dating back to Valentine’s Day. Lighty’s absence forced the Buckeyes to abandon their 1-3-1 zone defense, and the Vols immediately attacked Simmons and got him into foul trouble as well.
Although the senior picked up his second foul at the 12:22 mark, he remained in the game in place of Lighty but would go on to provide a spark. Simmons hit three first-half three-pointers to help compensate for the loss of Lighty.
The Buckeyes opened the game on an 11-4 run, but after a Tennessee trey and a Buford basket it was a 13-7 OSU lead with 16:00 remaining. The sophomore had the hot hand early, scoring his team’s first five points and nine of OSU’s first 13. He finished the half with a team-high 12 points.
From there, the Volunteers settled down and put together a 10-0 run that gave them their first lead since the first possession of the game.
It was a Simmons trey that broke the streak and made it 17-16 with 11:39 to go. He would hit another at the 9:54 mark to give the Buckeyes a short-lived 19-18 lead that was erased on Tennessee’s ensuing possession by a trey from Wayne Chism.
OSU would then tie the game six times before a Buford three-pointer with 3:03 remaining made it 35-32 in favor of the Buckeyes. Tennessee would tie it at 37, but the Buckeyes got Simmons’ third trey and a jumper from Turner to push their lead to five points with about 22 seconds left.
Tennessee’s Bobby Maze slashed to the back and connected with about two seconds left to set the halftime score at 42-39.
The Vols used 10 players in the first half, each of whom saw at least six minutes of action. In contrast, the Buckeyes used seven players – a fact necessitated by Lighty’s foul trouble.
OSU had no answer for Chism down low, who led his team with 22 points -- 18 of which came in the second half.
"Our defense just wasn't what it used to be today," Lighty said.
Tennessee controlled the glass, grabbing 20 offensive rebounds and winning the overall battle 41-29. As a result, the Vols scored 50 of their 76 points in the paint.
Buford finished with 15 points, while Lighty had nine. Diebler went 1 for 7 from three-point range and finished with three points.
"I thought Jon got a couple good looks," Matta said. "He couldn't get a bucket to go down for him, and 1 for 7 from three for Jon with his percentage on the season isn't Jon Diebler-like."