The big man finally looked like a freshman, getting mired in foul trouble as the top-seeded Buckeyes fell behind by 20 points before halftime. But senior Ron Lewis and fellow freshman Mike Conley bailed out Oden and lifted Ohio State past Tennessee, 85-84 Thursday night in the semifinals of the NCAA South Regional.
Lewis scored 25 points, and Conley had nine of his 17 from the foul line, including the winner with 6.5 seconds left.
But Conley missed a second shot, giving Tennessee one last chance. Ramar Smith grabbed the rebound and went all the way to the rim with Conley defending him. They went up together and time expired with his ball in the air.
Then it was Oden to the rescue, swatting the ball into the Volunteers' cheerleaders and dropping back to earth himself with his biggest smile of the night, while Smith planted himself facedown in front of the Tennessee bench.
The Buckeyes (33-3) won their 20th straight game, keeping alive their longest run in the tournament since reaching the Final Four in 1999. They can get there again with a victory Saturday against Memphis, a 65-64 winner over Texas A&M earlier Thursday.
For the Volunteers (24-11), this was a second straight heartbreaking loss to one of the nation's top teams. The first was a 68-66 defeat in Columbus, Ohio, in mid-January when Oden had the first breakout game of his career.
The 7-foot, 270-pound man-child scored only nine points, matching his lowest in 15 games, and set a season-low with three rebounds. He never fouled out, though, needing quick substitutions in the final few minutes to avoid getting disqualified.
After trailing 49-29 in the final minute of the first half, the Buckeyes got back into the game with a 19-5 spurt, keyed by six free throws from Conley. Fittingly, his pair of foul shots tied it at 64.