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Tennessee showed the energy but not the victory

By Mike Strange Knoxville News-Sentinel (MCT) • Dec 15, 2015 at 2:45 PM

INDIANAPOLIS — They could have accepted their fate. Michigan was up 15 and the way the Wolverines were making shots, it could easily get worse.

But Tennessee didn't quit Friday night. The Vols didn't accept their fate. And they paid a price for it.

"To lose the way we did, the way we fought back," said a red-eyed Jordan McRae, "it really hurts."

Michigan 73, Tennessee 71. That's how it ended. And it did hurt. You could see it all around the final locker room scene of this UT basketball season.

The Vols started their NCAA tournament run with a valiant comeback in Dayton last week against Iowa. They pulled it off in the end, and, boy, was that one happy locker room.

Friday night in the Sweet 16, before 40,000 at Lucas Oil Stadium, the Vols tried the same script again. This time they didn't get there. It's over.

"I definitely feel we had the advantage in that last minute," said senior Jeronne Maymon, his career just completed. "Too bad it had to end like that."

That last minute was something. The Vols were down 15 with 10:56 to play, down 10 with 3:40 left, down eight with 2:22 left.

"Time couldn't run out fast enough for us," said Michigan sharpshooter Nik Stauskas.

The final 90 seconds was a gripping display of Tennessee defense, the kind that carried the Vols to their late-season redemption.

They gave themselves a chance to win, gaining possession, down 72-71 with 9.6 seconds left.

An official's call that will live in Tennessee infamy _ an offensive foul on Jarnell Stokes _ allowed Michigan to escape.

Then Stauskas hit a free throw with 2.1 seconds left, missed the second and all McRae could do was throw up a shot from beyond midcourt that sailed high over the backboard.

It would be McRae's last act as a Vol.

He collapsed on the baseline. As the crowd absorbed the fact that the drama was finally over, teammate Galen Campbell pulled McRae to his feet and shepherded him through the handshake line.

Yeah, it really hurt. Because the Vols gave it all they had in that last frantic push.

"That's just us," said freshman Darius Thompson, "we're gonna keep fighting to the end no matter what the situation is."

But it also hurt because the players and coaches have to acknowledge that their own shortcomings also prevented them from playing in the Elite Eight on Sunday.

McRae wasn't thinking of the 24 points he scored, the nine shots he made. He was counting the five free throws he missed.

"Maybe," he said quietly, "if I don't miss 'em, we win it."

There were regrettable defensive lapses, too. When Michigan needed a big basket, it often found one.

Usually, it was someone or another draining a 3-pointer. But it was also big man Jordan Morgan getting layups and dunks off set pieces, outscoring Stokes 15-11.

"I felt we came out and played not even half to our potential," Stokes said of UT's shoddy defensive first half.

"I'm probably gonna look back on this game and there are so many things we could have done differently," Stokes said. "Even though they hit so many shots, I still felt like we should have won."

Tennessee didn't win, though. Coming so close, the energy required in not giving up, it all takes a toll.

But this night on this stage, it was a trip worth taking.

"It was a bunch of different emotions you were feeling," said sophomore Derek Reese, "excitement, sad, back to excitement, going back and forth.

"It was just crazy."

Especially the crazy ending. The comeback. The call. The hurt.

Said Stokes, "We definitely went out with heart."

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