Eight Games, Pt. 3: Born to Run

Aftermath

The immediate after-effect was stunned silence on both sides. Tennessee was excited, but it seemed everyone was shocked by how well this went; it was like they expected to play NCAA Football on Heisman and it ended up being Rookie-level easy. Everything Pearl wanted his team to do that day, they did. Force lots of Texas turnovers? The Vols forced 22, as many as Boston College had against Pearl’s Milwaukee Panthers nine months prior. Exploit Texas’ struggles in defending the three-point line? Of course. Tennessee went 12-for-24 from three, with Lofton going 5-for-9. Limit Aldridge and Tucker’s impact on the game by playing aggressively? This one was flawless: Aldridge committed four fouls, while Tucker – a relentless defender – fouled out late in the game with one steal and no blocks.

It was shocking just how efficiently and effectively Tennessee had demolished what was seen as the preseason co-title favorite with Duke. Tennessee had posted 1.323 points per possession (the 10th-worst surrendered by Texas from 2001-2021), forced Texas to turn the ball over on 30.6% of possessions (an average team in 2005-06: 21.3%), and didn’t trail for even a second. Texas would recover to be a 2 seed and eventually make the Elite Eight, but another SEC stronghold – LSU – would do them in in an overtime thriller. Fittingly, LSU won the turnover battle and played a higher-tempo game than Texas had hoped for.

Tennessee, meanwhile, used this game as an immediate springboard into national attention. They were quickly slid into the tail end of the AP Poll, lost that ranking by way of a double-digit loss to Oklahoma State, then seemingly recovered overnight. Pearl’s first SEC win was almost too good to be true: a 76-69 road victory featuring Tennessee overcoming a 12-point halftime deficit against the team ranked one spot ahead of them in the preseason poll, South Carolina. They’d lose on January 14 to LSU, then January 18 to Memphis. Tennessee was 11-3, 2-1 SEC, and unranked. Pearl wouldn’t lose for another month.

If you asked an average Tennessee basketball fan with a decent memory of the last 25 years of the program to name their favorite edition of the team, a significant chunk would skip right over 2018-19, 2017-18, 2009-10, and 2007-08 to this one. Fans adored this team. No longer did curtains hang in Thompson-Boling Arena. No longer did Tennessee men’s basketball play third fiddle to the football program and Pat Summitt’s amazing women’s basketball squad. For the first time in years, Tennessee had three legitimate headlining programs. It helped that Pearl seemed to be everywhere all of the time, whether it was in dining halls or at Lady Vol games with a painted chest.

That 2005-06 team would lose to Wichita State in the Round of 32, a disappointing end to one of the most brilliant and surprising seasons Tennessee has ever served their fans. It remains possibly the only time I’ve been happy and satisfied after a Tennessee basketball loss. To lose as a 2 seed in the Round of 32 (two days after very nearly losing in the Round of 64) sucked, obviously, but it was amazing to even be there in the first place. Four months prior, Tennessee began this season as a true also-ran that most fans saw as an NIT squad at best. They’d shifted the paradigm overnight. There was no turning back for Tennessee basketball, and this beautiful, glorious Texas demolition allowed everyone to start believing.

The next season was a bit less joyful. Tennessee started the year in the AP Top 25 at 25th, posted a nasty 56-44 loss to Butler, got demolished by North Carolina, and disappeared from the national spotlight for a few weeks. Then they slowly, yet surely roared back. It began with a 79-77 win over Oklahoma State, the team that served Tennessee its first loss a year prior, that ended with a Dane Bradshaw tip-in to push the Vols over the top. That was the opening act for perhaps the greatest Tennessee basketball game ever played five days later.

With 40 seconds remaining, Chris Lofton stared down Kevin Durant. Durant would go #2 in the Draft a few months in the future and would go on to a first-ballot Hall of Fame career in which some would tell you he’s the best living basketball player when fully healthy. It’s a reasonable argument to make. In this moment, Lofton stared down the Maybe Greatest Living Player, a man far taller than he, and pulled up for a rainbow of a shot.

Stop any Tennessee basketball fan, ask them for their favorite play of the last 20 years, and it very well might be this one you hear back about.

Tennessee won, 111-105, in overtime. Then they kept winning, moving to 13-2 and #16 overall in the country. And then…it began to derail. The ghost of Jerry Green felt like it had come back to haunt Tennessee fans at the worst possible time. The Vols lost three in a row by a combined six points; the most upsetting of these was an 83-80 loss to Auburn in which Tennessee led by double digits with five minutes remaining. Chris Lofton was hurt in a home win against South Carolina and missed four games, which Tennessee went 1-3 in. Suddenly, a potential Dream Season II was sitting at 15-8, 3-4 SEC.

Lofton would return for a Tuesday night showdown against a surprisingly mediocre LSU squad. Tennessee would hem and haw for most of the 40 minutes, never seeming to get into a rhythm…then somehow pulled one out at night’s end, 70-67. This spurred on the revival of the squad, culminating in a seven-wins-in-eight-games run that pushed Tennessee from a season marred by injuries and disappointment into a team trending in the right direction as March approached.

Because Tennessee is Tennessee, this immediately turned into a first-round SEC Tournament loss to the aforementioned bad LSU squad. Tennessee got a 5-seed, drew moderately-popular 12-seed upset pick Long Beach State, and uncorked a 40-minute domination unlike what Tennessee fans had seen before or since in the NCAA Tournament.

Then they’d draw 4-seed Virginia in the second round. Tennessee was garbage for about 15 minutes of this game, which turned out to be precisely the amount of time they could be garbage. Tennessee trailed by 11, turned it around in the second half, and escaped Virginia, 77-74.

That Thursday evening, they’d play 1-seed Ohio State for the right to go to the Elite Eight. Tennessee had demons to exorcise: not just in the way Jerry Green had let them consume the Vols seven years prior, but from Ohio State themselves.

Earlier in the season, in the middle of Tennessee’s first three-game losing streak, they’d travel to Columbus to play an Ohio State team featuring Greg Oden (future #1 pick), Mike Conley, Jr., and a lot more. The Buckeyes were already looking better than expected, and their fans were dreaming of a Final Four or greater.

Tennessee trailed by 10 with about 13 minutes left, which seemed fairly accurate for the #16 team heading to play #5 on the road. Then Chris Lofton started doing all sorts of crazy things. Others filled in. Everyone but Oden (and Ron Lewis) seemed to struggle. Tennessee led, 66-65, with 27 seconds to play. Ramar Smith – far from a great free throw shooter at 62% for his career – walked to the line for the front end of a one-and-one. He missed. No worries: Tennessee got the ball back and Chris Lofton, a career 84% shooter, ended up with it in his hands.

Lofton took a deep breath. He went into his windup. The shot fell short. Ron Lewis came down the other way, got off a good look, and, well, that was that.

Tennessee got their second chance and took advantage in spades. The first shot of the game was a JaJuan Smith three, four seconds in. Tennessee’s next made shot was a Lofton three. Then Smith hit another. Then Lofton hit another. Then Smith. Then Ryan Childress – RYAN CHILDRESS – hit two in a row. 21 of Tennessee’s first 23 points were threes. Ramar Smith began scoring at will at the rim. Ohio State couldn’t keep up. It was 49-29, Tennessee, and only a David Lighty and-one with a second left in the first half got it to 49-32 at halftime.

This was far better than the North Carolina 2000 fixture ever felt. Tennessee was beating a 1 seed by 17 points. They were only 20 minutes away from what would immediately become the greatest win in program history. It was so, so close. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to close the game video tab out and assume that Tennessee went on to the Elite Eight.

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No.

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You cannot make me do this.

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Ohio State came out of halftime energized. Before you blinked, it was 51-44 Tennessee at the first media timeout. It was 57-53 at the second. Matt Terwilliger made a pair of free throws to give Ohio State a 66-64 lead with 8:34 to play, barely 11:27 after they had trailed by 20 points. That’s what gets lost in this for me: it isn’t that Ohio State ends up winning, really. It’s that they erased a 20-point deficit in less than 12 minutes of game time. That does not happen often, if ever.

Tennessee wobbled after taking several knockout punches and bafflingly stood there, still standing. Ryan Childress – RYAN CHILDRESS AGAIN – made a three to make it 77-74 Tennessee. Then it went back and forth for the final five minutes. Ramar Smith got fouled as Ohio State led 84-83. He missed his first attempt, just like in January. The miracle here: he got a second, which he converted. Ohio State held for the final possession, which ended up in Conley’s hands. He drew a foul. Conley, who would go on to hit 82% of his career attempts in the NBA, calmly hit the first. Whether it was fear or fright that made the second one different, he missed it. A scramble ensued. Everything was happening.

Ramar Smith had it. Smith had 15 points on the night, second only to Lofton. Everyone on Ohio State knew Lofton wanted the ball, but Smith was the most confident player in the entire arena. He used his lightning-fast legs to speed up the court. With barely any time left, he rose to attempt a layup that would send Tennessee to its first-ever Elite Eight.

For 14 years, I refused to watch this play again, because I knew that Ramar Smith was fouled by Greg Oden and ISIS University was victorious yet again. Not until the genesis of this project formed in my head did I force myself to endure a second viewing.

Ramar Smith was not fouled by Greg Oden. Greg Oden didn’t contact a single part of Smith’s body. Oden was even obscured by his own defender. A guy that makes plays like that very reasonably gets picked #1 overall, because there really aren’t many guys even today that could do this. He did it. I went to bed, threw my shirt at the wall, and laid face-down for an hour until I fell asleep.

Tennessee returned almost everything they needed to for 2007-08. It immediately showed. Texas did finally get the best of the Vols (97-78) in late November. That was Tennessee’s only blemish over the first 2.5 months of play; they started 16-1 and rose to #3 overall. A trip to Rupp Arena was less scary than usual, as Kentucky was in Year One of a new coach and – oh yeah, sorry, that place still sucks. So Tennessee would simply have to be 24-2 and 11-1 in SEC play entering the biggest regular season matchup in school history: #2 Tennessee at #1 and undefeated Memphis with everything on the line.

Unlike the majority of Games of the Century, this one really did live up to the hype. Neither team held more than a seven-point lead at any point. The score at halftime was 35-34, Memphis, and for the final four minutes of the game, the margin was within four points. If Tennessee was going to squeak across the finish line on top, it would have to take an entirely un-Pearl-like path for Tennessee to potentially secure a victory. Memphis committed four fewer turnovers and outshot Tennessee by 4.3%. In response, Tennessee did something Pearl’s Milwaukee teams and his first 1.5 Tennessee teams rarely did: owned the boards. Tennessee would finish the night with 17 more rebounds (9 more offensive boards) than Memphis. Every single one of them were necessary.

With 30 seconds left, the ball made it to Tyler Smith’s hands. Smith was from Pulaski, TN, and was a recruit that Pearl simply was a year late on. Smith’s recruitment for most of his college career had been overseen by Buzz Peterson, and Smith’s senior year was the 2005-06 college season. When Smith signed his letter of intent, Tennessee was embarking upon their first truly good season in half a decade. Iowa was in the midst of their own special turnaround at the hands of Steve Alford. Iowa was a 3-seed that famously lost to a 14-seed that year, but it seemed like Smith would be stepping into a place where he’d be a star. His freshman year at Iowa saw him lead Iowa in points, rebounds, and steals. Then Steve Alford left Iowa for New Mexico.

Smith wasn’t sure what to do. He tried making it work with new head coach Todd Lickliter, then jumped ship 20 days later without any announced plans in mind. His father, Billy, had been diagnosed with cancer. He didn’t have much time left. (There is no easy place to just slot this in, but reporting from The Des Moines Register claims that Billy lived in McMinnville, TN, which is my hometown and where I resided at the time. Somehow, this was not deemed newsworthy by the local paper, as I do not remember this being reported on at all.) In the lead-up to the NCAA Tournament in 2008, the New York Times reported on Tyler and Billy, with this being the important piece of the puzzle:

Billy Smith would pass away on September 19, 2007, just under two months before he would be able to see his son play in person two hours up the road. Five months and five days after his father passed away, Tyler Smith would make the shot of a lifetime to send Tennessee basketball to #1 nationally for the first time in school history.

What we know now is that it required this Herculean mental, physical, and spiritual drain for Tennessee to reach the mountaintop. Their race, for now, was run. They’d turn around three days later and lose at Satan’s Basketball Warehouse Vanderbilt’s Memorial Gym by three points. That was followed by a pair of squeakers over Kentucky at home (63-60) and Florida on the road (89-86). The SEC Tournament remained stupid, and Tennessee bowed out of it in the semifinals.

No one remembers those games anymore. What they remember is one of the greatest performances they’d ever see at Tennessee, driven by emotion and energy unimaginable to us mortals. To bring life to Tennessee, they had to suck all of the life out of it that they could first. In under three seasons, Tennessee had gone from what media members figured was an SEC team capable of winning 5-7 league games to a program feared by many and respected by all.


It didn’t end the way it should’ve. The Round of 64 saw Tennessee semi-struggle with American University for a while before dispatching them by 15 points; it then saw them have to go to overtime with 7-seed Butler in a forgotten classic where Tennessee had to overcome a combined 6-for-20 outing from JaJuan Smith and Chris Lofton to escape to the Sweet Sixteen. By the time they got there, they had nothing left. Rick Pitino and Louisville merely delivered the eulogy to a season that peaked on a cold night in February just off of Beale Street.

It wasn’t fair, but nothing is in sports. Until otherwise noted, it always ends in a loss. The hurt was real. This was the final game for so many important pieces to the Tennessee puzzle: Chris Lofton, JaJuan Smith, and even Jordan Howell, who bafflingly emerged as a starter at various points for the #1 team in America. Then there were more losses when Ramar Smith (the proverbial sixth starter) and Duke Crews (a bear to handle off the bench) were dismissed for legal issues. Of the cornerstones of Pearl’s first team, only Ryan Childress – who would play four more games in a Tennessee uniform – remained.

Bruce’s first era was done. Act Two would be starting soon. He’d have to find a way to run it back all over again for a fanbase with increased expectations.

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