BIRMINGHAM, Alabama (Ticker) -- With its fearless leader limping noticeably throughout, defending national champion Connecticut was sent staggering out of the NCAA Tournament by Tennessee.
Junior point guard Khalid El-Amin's sprained right ankle left the fifth-seeded Huskies looking lost as fellow playmaker Tony Harris led the fourth-seeded Volunteers to the "Sweet 16" with a convincing 65-51 victory in a South Region game.
Connecticut trailed 32-22 at intermission, but appeared to get some life from its portly playmaker early in the second half. El-Amin's only points of the game came on a 3-pointer that pulled the Huskies within 38-34 with just over 14 minutes to play.
But El-Amin was forced back to the bench with 12:30 remaining and he appeared to take Connecticut's repeat national title hopes with him. The well-balanced Volunteers went for the jugular, using an 18-6 run to stretch their lead to 56-40 with 3:33 to play.
"First of all, let me call it like it is," Tennessee coach Jerry Green said. "They are not the same team without Khalid El-Amin tonight. I really feel for them and for him not being as healthy as they would have liked him to have been. I thought that we played awfully good. This may have been as good a game as we've played all year." Harris scored 18 points and shadowed El-Amin mercilessly, handing Connecticut its first loss in six second-round contests. Huskies coach Jim Calhoun entered the day with a 16-1 mark in first and second-round NCAA Tournament games, but had to know his chances of improving on that mark were poor without a healthly El-Amin.
"We did not want to let up. We knew they were going to make a run, so we wanted to get a jump on them early (in the second half)," Harris said.
"They made their 3-point shots, they mixed it up, they went through the inside and made some points," Calhoun said. "I wish them the best of luck in Texas. I would personally like to thank (seniors) Jake Voskuhl and Kevin Freeman. We had 109 wins in four years and three Big East titles and an NCAA title. I've enjoyed coaching them and I wish them the best of luck in the future. Tennessee is going to Texas and we're going home proud of what we've done." Vincent Yarbrough scored 14 points and C.J. Black added 13 for Tennessee, which held Connecticut to its lowest point total of the season. The Volunteers will face eighth-seeded North Carolina in Austin, Texas on Friday. The Tar Heels knocked off No. 1 seed Stanford earlier today.
"Our perimeter and post players had a great game," Black said. "It was an all-around great game for us. We got some great layups and dunks and it was just a great game.
"I think they came out and played very well. It was tough for them to play without their main person on the floor. I think it was hard for them to find someone to fill those shoes." Tennessee reached the regional semifinals in 1967 and 1981, but this is the first time they have won two games in the NCAA Tournament.
Albert Mouring scored 16 points and Kevin Freeman had 14 for the Huskies, who fell behind for good when Yarbrough snapped a 17-17 tie with a 3-pointer 5:42 before halftime.
The Huskies shot 39 percent (22-of-57), committed 15 turnovers and managed just four assists. El-Amin had one assist in 13:17 and appeared to lose his steam moments after hitting his 3-pointer when Harris relentlessly chased him around the court on Connecticut's ensuing possession.
"Our defense was fine without (El-Amin), but our offense struggled tremendously," Calhoun said. "We depend on Khalid's energy so much. Khalid is the head of the dragon." Connecticut's starting center Jake Voskuhl managed just two points and nine rebounds, playing just 17:39 due to foul trouble.
"We really believed in ourselves. It's really difficult to depend on one person," Voskuhl said. "It was hard without Khalid, we've got to give credit to Tennessee." Jon Higgins scored nine points ofr Tennessee, including a 3-pointer after El-Amin's long-range shot that gave the Vols a 41-34 lead with 13:23 to play.
Yarbrough dunked over two Huskies and drew a foul, making the free throw to re-establish a 10-point bulge while Connecticut continued to have empty possessions. Black made a pair of free throws and Slay hit a nine-foot jumper before Harris Walker's basket made it 50-36 with 6:35 left.
Souleymane Wane made a hook shot for Connecticut, but Slay hit two more from the line before Black's thunderous dunk stretched the margin to 54-38 with 4:42 remaining. The Huskies did not challenge thereafter.
Tennessee shot 45 percent (21-of-47) and outscored Connecticut, 16-3, at the line. The Volunteers turned the ball over just eight times.
Harris opened the scoring with an 18-footer, but Freeman answered with a dunk and Mouring sank an 11-footer to give the Huskies their only lead, 4-2, just over two minutes into play.
Higgins and Yarbrough buried back-to-back 3-pointers to put the Vols back ahead, 8-4. Harris' dunk gave Tennessee a 16-10 lead before the Huskies came storming back wiht a 7-1 run, capped by Emdund Saunders' layup that forged a 17-17 tie with 5:55 left in the first half.