Tennessee's basketball team heavily relies on its shirt-to-shirt defense. It's what put the 11-seed Vols in the Sweet 16.
But the sweet turned sour for Coach Cuonzo Martin's team Friday night in Indianapolis when the Vols defense got off to a horrid start, gift-wrapping a 45-34 half-time present for Michigan. The Vols staged a heroic rally down the stretch, but were never able to get the lead.
The Vols trailed 72-64 with 2:23 on the game clock. It was then that the Vols finally went back to their bread and butter. They forced turnovers. They held Michigan scoreless until guard Nik Stauskas hit the first of a one-and-one with 2.1 seconds left to give the Wolverines a nerve-wracking 73-71 victory. Tennessee outscored Michigan by 16 points in the second half, but the Vols spent a lot of energy in making a game of it.
Tennessee's defense gave up too many open looks to the sharp shooting Big Ten team. Michigan scorched the nets in the opening half, hitting 61.5 percent from the field and knocked down seven of nine 3-pointers.
"I think the first half we were kind of playing soft defense,'' said Tennessee's Josh Richardson. "We let them get through and get to the rack whenever they wanted. It was creating open looks from the 3 (point line) because guys had to step down to help.''
The Vols trailed 60-45 before their offense started clicking. They had relied too much on their perimeter shots, instead of going inside to challenge Michigan's interior defense. For much of the game, the Vols had to play without Jeronne Maymon, who was in foul trouble early in the game and scored only two points in 17 minutes.
Michigan's Glenn Robinson III did a solid job on Maymon.
"I tried to be strong in the post,'' Robinson said. "I tried to front it when I could, make them force tough passes into the post. I just tried to make (Maymon) struggle a little bit on offense. And then when we were on offense, I just tried to attack him and find straight line drives down and their coach had to take him out of the game and get four guards in there.''
Martin said the key was the Vols playing to their strength in the second half and not launching low percentage perimeter shots.
"We felt like going into the game we could drive the ball, attack the rim, make plays,'' Martin said. "I thought the second half we were very aggressive in getting to the rim and those were the results.''
The Vols kept fighting, even when the outcome looked bleak.. They were an 11-seed after having to win a play-in game against Iowa. Martin had his team believing they could play with any of the teams in the tournament.
"What a great job (Martin) has done with that team,'' Michigan Coach John Belein said. "He's done a great job developing the culture of that program. You feel bad because they worked so hard and came back. We know we beat a really good team.''
Michigan lost in the Final Four championship game a year ago and had the nucleus of this year's team benefitting from that experience.
They featured a four-out guard lineup with big Jordan Morgan anchoring the paint. He led his team with 15 points, with Stanuskas adding 14 points and Robinson III chipping in 13 points as Michigan put four starters in double figures.
It was that balance that prevented Tennessee from stopping one or two players. Michigan did cool off in the second half, as Tennessee turned up the defensive screws.
After hitting 7 of 9 behind the 3-point line in the first half, Michigan only dropped four of 11 treys in the second half. They shot 55.1 percent from the field on 27 of 49 attempts finding the net. They were 55 percent from 3-point land on 11 of 20 and they missed only two of 10 free throws. A solid, all-around, well-rounded lineup proved to be the answer for beating Tennessee.
Tennessee's Jordan McRae led all scorers with 24 points. He also blocked four shots. The Vols were outscored from the 3-point line, 33-9. In math and hoops, 3s beat 2s every time.
And the Vols magic carpet ride came to a crash landing.
Contact wkrn.com Sports Columnist Joe Biddle at email@example.com.