INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – After trailing by as many as 15 points, Tennessee had the ball with a chance to win with just nine seconds remaining in the Sweet 16.
The Vols, which had been shelled by Michigan's hot shooting earlier in the contest, were one possession away from the Elite 8 and matching their best tournament run in school history.
Tennessee (24-13) got the ball into Jarnell Stokes’ hands, who had perhaps the best matchup on the floor against Michigan center Jordan Morgan, but Stokes was called for a charge as he backed down in the lane for what would’ve been a game-winning shot opportunity.
After getting the ball in and getting fouled, Michigan knocked down a free throw on the other end to take a 73-71 lead. Jordan McRae's half-court heave was well off the mark as time elapsed, sealing the win for Michigan, which moves on to the Elite 8 to play the winner of Kentucky-Louisville.
"No, I don't think I fouled him," Stokes said of the controversial foul call. "It was a smart play for him to try to take the charge. He pretty much anticipated it."
"I thought [Stokes] made a good move, the official called it a charge," added Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin. “We got the ball to Jarnell, Jordan set a screen for him to get him right to isolate him, attack him in the middle, get Jordan up top for a shot, had Jeronne [Maymon] man the opposite block.
“Obviously we got the ball where we wanted – just didn't get the result.”
Despite the outcome, it was a borderline miraculous comeback for a Tennessee team that looked to be overmatched early.
No. 2 seeded Michigan (28-8) hit 7 of 9 (77.8%) 3-pointers in the first half to build a 45-34 edge lead at the break over No. 11 seed Tennessee.
“We did a good job of picking our spots, hitting open shots,” said Michigan point guard Derrick Walton Jr. “We work on it a lot in practice. It’s right to go out and shoot them in a game.”
And though the Wolverines held the lead for the entire second half, the Vols kept chipping away. Tennessee got it down to seven points, then four and ultimately down to one with the ball after Michigan turned it over with 9.6 seconds left.
Michigan scored just three points in the final four minutes of the game to give UT life. Down 72-64 with 2:22 remaining, the Vols went on a 7-0 run to make the final possessions interesting. Michigan turned it over four times in the final 1:37 of the game after UT clamped down on the defensive end.
The Wolverines’ 3-point percentage dropped from .778 all the way down to .364 in the second frame.
“I think the first half we were kind of playing soft defense,” said Josh Richardson, who finished with 19 points on 9 of 14 shooting. “We let them get through and get to the rack whenever they wanted. And I mean, it was creating open looks from the 3 because guys had to step down to help. But I think we did a better job settling down in the second half.”
Tennessee players weren’t interested in claiming any moral victories, though the Vols clearly showed a tremendous amount of fortitude down the stretch this season. Tennessee finished with eight wins in its final 10 games, the fifth-best season in school history in terms of number of wins and the fourth Sweet 16 appearance in the last eight years.
A team that barely squeezed into the NCAA tournament advanced all the way to the Sweet 16 and came painstakingly close to pushing on even further.
“I mean, regardless of the outcome, we played hard,” said McRae. “And it was a huge comeback for us. But the feeling right now, you just can't really be happy after that.”
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga