Vols bail coach Pearl out in tough matchup with Butler
Posted: Sunday March 23, 2008 7:45PM; Updated: Sunday March 23, 2008 7:45PM
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Bruce Pearl needed help.
Heading into overtime against a resilient Butler squad, Pearl asked his team to bail him out, faulting himself for not being able to lead Tennessee to victory in regulation.
"If they love me, they'll bail me out," Pearl said.
Bail him out they did. Second-seeded Tennessee survived a pulsating 76-71 battle against seventh-seeded Butler in a game that demonstrated these two teams probably should not have been meeting in the second round.
Ironically, the player that bailed Pearl and Tennessee out was Ramar Smith, Pearl's benched point guard who sat out the final offensive possession of regulation and watched replacement J.P. Prince travel. Smith made two huge plays in OT, driving for a tying basket with 1:20 to play that knotted things at 68 and converting another driving layup with 26 seconds left that gave Tennessee a 72-68 lead.
"I'm on [Ramar] pretty hard," Pearl said. "I went with Ramar [in overtime] just because I knew we were going to be in a close game-out situation, and even though we hadn't been getting great plays from Ramar, he's been in that situation before and he obviously delivered."
Smith started 14 of the final 15 games of the season, but with Pearl growing increasingly frustrated with his play, he was benched the entire first half in Tennessee's first-round win over American. Jordan Howell started in his place, and then against Butler, it was Prince, who had not started all season.
"I just thought that the point guard play we were getting wasn't going to win a national championship," Pearl said.
But the national championship dream is still alive, though it almost ended before overtime began. When Prince traveled with four seconds left and the score tied 63-63, Butler had a chance to return to the Sweet 16 and continue a remarkable two-year stretch that saw it win 59 games. Mike Green, the Bulldogs' MVP, caught the ball in the backcourt heading toward the hoop, but before he could launch a potential game-winner, Prince stripped him. The Butler bench screamed for a foul, but none was coming, and this nerve-grinder was headed for five more minutes.
Chris Lofton, who was held in check for most of the day, gave UT a 66-63 lead with a deep three-pointer. But Green answered with a trey of his own to tie it at 66. Butler finally took its first lead moments later on an A.J. Graves drive, but then Ramar Smith stepped up.
"I came in and backed my teammates up," Smith said. "I came out there and played my heart out for my teammates."
Tyler Smith made the most pivotal defensive play of the game, blocking a Graves drive with 40 seconds left that would have tied the score. Smith scored at the other end, and Butler was in desperation mode for the final seconds.
"I thought we played awfully well," Pearl said. "We're thrilled to survive and advance. That's what it is all about."
For Butler, five seniors bid farewell to college basketball in a classic Big Guy vs. Little Guy NCAA tournament game. Tennessee earned points inside with its superior size and athleticism, while Butler relied on precision offense, shooting and help defense to hang with the SEC regular-season champions.
"This is the greatest tournament in the world," said Graves, who finished with 21 points. "We left everything out on the court and came up short, and I have no problem with that. I can go home and feel good that we gave it all we had."
Tennessee pounced on its Horizon League opponents early, grabbing a 13-2 lead and giving the impression that this one was going to be no contest. But Butler coach Brad Stevens stressed before the game to his team to maintain its poise and play the full 40 (or 45) minutes.
"Last year, it was 22-9 [Tennessee] at Madison Square Garden," Stevens said, referencing a game Butler rallied to win against the Vols. "They are a tremendous team of runs, and you just have to weather some of that. This is a long, long game."
Eventually, the Big Guy won out, but not before earning praise from Pearl, who spent four years battling Butler in the Horizon League when he was at Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
"What more can you say about Butler and the way those kids played, how they honor the game?" Pearl said. "This is the best Butler team I've seen."