BIRMINGHAM, Alabama (Ticker) -- A freshman helped Tennessee slay last year's early round demon.
Ron Slay scored 13 of his 15 points in the second half to lead the fourth-seeded Volunteers to a 63-58 victory over No. 14 Louisiana-Lafayette in a first-round game in the South Region.
"I think this team was looking for a win in the postseason," Volunteers forward Vincent Yarbrough said. "That might be what gets us ignited and starts an avalanche." In the second round last season, favored Tennessee was drilled by 30 points in a loss to 12th seed Southwest Missouri State. The Volunteers did not look ready to erase that memory, allowing UL-Lafayette to hold lead for most of the second half.
Slay was 6-of-8 from the field and had all of his team's bench points. The rest of his teammates shot just 26 percent (11-of-43), including a dismal 6-of-30 effort (20 percent) from 3-point range.
"I figured I needed to step up the defense and that's what everybody did," said Slay. "I got a block and C.J. (Black) got a block. ... On defense it's a team game; on offense it's a team game. My teammates did a great job getting me the ball and I was feeling it." Black added 14 points and was 10-of-10 from the foul line for the Volunteers, who meet the winner Connecticut on Sunday. Tennessee was 23-of-29 (79 percent) from the foul line.
Tony Harris, who also scored 15 points, tied it 52-52 with 6:04 remaining on a 3-pointer. Lonnie Thomas, who topped the Ragin' Cajuns with 19 points, traded a bucket with Slay's two free throws to tie it for the final time with 5:09 left.
Slay gave Tennessee (25-6) the lead for good, 56-54, with 4:03 remaining. Yarbrough made two free throws to extend the advantage to four points at the 2:22 mark but Reggie DeGray, who had just checked in again with four fouls, made a basket for the Cajuns.
Slay converted a right-hander off the back of the rim with 1:48 remaining to restore the four-point edge. But burly Australian Brett Smith hustled for a loose rebound, one of his 10 boards, and scored in the lane to slice the deficit back to two with 46 seconds to go.
With 15.6 seconds left Harris went to the line after what appeared to be a phantom foul call against Smith, who looked to have a clean steal outside the 3-point line on the right side. Harris missed the shot and Slay grabbed the rebound, drawing a flagrant foul on Smith by hitting the ground hard.
"I was working on my Oscar performance for later in the year," Slay admitted. "I lost my feet and then that's where the Oscar performance came in." "When the guard came down, he lost the ball and Brett picked it up," Cajuns forward Orlando Butler said. "We know it was a bad call and everyone in the gym knew it was a bad call." Slay missed both free throws, but Harris got to the line after the inbounds pass and calmly converted two from the line with 10.8 seconds left to seal it.
"We saw that Ron was getting some baskets on the inside," Tennessee coach Jerry Green said. "We struggled from the outside. Our post at the half had shot five times. We struggled against the zone. ... Then the adjustment was to move Ron to the middle of the free throw zone, where he could catch it easier." Yarbrough had 11 points and a team-best seven boards as Tennessee was outrebounded, 41-31.
"Down the stretch we realized some of our threes weren't going to fall, so we realized we needed to get somebody inside the ball," Yarbrough explained. "Ron was playing well and we realized we had to get the ball in there to him. They were getting a hand on a lot of our outside shots.
"Coach Green was telling us to stay calm and don't panic. We knew we had to play great defense and stop the big guy inside." Tennessee started the game with a 7-2 run but the Cajuns responded with a 22-6 burst to take an 11-point lead.
UL-Lafayette built the lead as high as 29-17 on Jarret Evans' only basket of the game, a 3-pointer with 4:36 left in the first half.
The Vols finally woke up, going on an 11-0 run that bridged the halves and cut the deficit to 29-28. They scored the final nine points of the first half and then Isiah Victor got the first bucket of the second stanza.
"We came out with too much intensity at first," Black said. "We began to play a normal pace that we were used to and continued it in the second half." Butler added 12 points and Smith had six for the Cajuns, who were making their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1994, when the scool was known as Southwestern Louisiana. They have not won a tournament game since knocking off No. 4 Oklahoma in the first round in 1992.
"We are a young team. We start five juniors and come off the bench with a junior and a freshman," Cajuns coach Jessie Evans said. "Today we showed our inexperience and next time we are in this situation we will know what to do.
"My guys showed today that they could stand toe-to-toe with Tennessee and I'm proud of them. My guys didn't want to be behind when the clock reached zero. They were going to be physical at the end and rush some shots, but that's what a young team will do." Thomas, who fouled out, promised to get back to the Field of 64 next season and to get further.
"I feel we showed everyone we belong in the Tournament and we can play," he said. "We will be back next year and we will be ready." .