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Pearl not crushed by defeat

ELIZABETH A. DAVIS • Mar 24, 2007 at 8:09 AM

KNOXVILLE - Start with the overexposed image of Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl cheering for the Lady Vols with his chest painted orange.

Add his blinding orange jacket, an undefeated record at home and wins over some of the best teams in the country despite having one of the youngest teams Pearl has ever coached. Don't forget women's-coach-turned- cheerleader Pat Summitt singing "Rocky Top."

This was the Volunteers' action-packed second season under Pearl. It ended a few days short of making more school history.

"My job is to try to do the best we can each year with each group, and I'm more than satisfied and pleased with what this team accomplished but still disappointed that we weren't able to win the game last night," Pearl said Friday after he and the team arrived at the Knoxville airport from San Antonio, where they lost to top-seeded Ohio State 85-84 in the regional semifinals.

The Vols (24-11) were trying to reach the regional finals, or round of eight, for the first time in the program's history.

And they were so close.

Tennessee, which lost at Ohio State 68-66 on Jan. 13, was ahead by as many as 20 points in the first half Thursday night and had the Buckeyes' stars 7-foot Greg Oden and point guard Mike Conley Jr. in foul trouble.

The Vols lost their edge in the second half, as Ohio State erased the deficit and took the lead. Ramar Smith's driving layup in the final seconds was blocked by Oden, and Tennessee's season was over. Chris Lofton, the Southeastern Conference Player of the Year, had 24 points.

Back in October, advancing to the Sweet 16 seemed farfetched after the dismissal of center Major Wingate, loss of senior point guard C.J. Watson and the addition of five freshmen that became four after one transferred.

But it was one game better than Tennessee's finish in Pearl's first season. The Vols lost to Wichita State in the second round a year ago as a No. 2 seed.

Pearl had a message for heartbroken fans.

"Don't feel sorry for us or badly because there are a lot more important things in life than a basketball game. But we're not happy. I'm not going to be happy for a while, and that's OK because that is what is going to get us back next year and get us to go farther," he said.

It was the last game for the lone senior, Dane Bradshaw, who became a fan favorite the past two years. At 6-foot-4, Pearl described him as one of the smallest, if not the smallest, power forwards in the nation.

"Dane Bradshaw left his mark on the resurrection of Tennessee basketball," Pearl said.

Bradshaw said he wasn't sure what he would do next - try out for some pro teams, coach or get a job in the business world.

"The success and rebuilding process that I've been able to be a part of and the bond that's been made with the coaches and the fans, between me and them, has been amazing and made it that much more special. We went through those first two years at 14-17 and now we're upset that we didn't make it to the Elite Eight. I'm glad I could go through it all," Bradshaw said.

Fans should relax a little about Pearl's status with the program. He and athletic director Mike Hamilton said they have not been contacted about the Kentucky job, now open with Tubby Smith's departure to Minnesota.

Pearl got a two-year extension after last season through 2012 with an escalating pay scale each year. His total compensation package will automatically increase from $1.1 million this year to $1.2 million next year.

Perhaps he would have been interested in some of the current job openings, such as Iowa and Michigan, at one time but apparently not now, he said.

"Those are opportunities that you certainly try to get to, but I'm here. I'm in the SEC. I'm at Tennessee. I go work everyday trying to reward Tennessee for bringing me here," he said.

Also Pearl has worked tirelessly to drum up support for the men's basketball program. Former star Bernard King returned this season for the first time in 30 years to be honored with the retirement of his jersey number. "Bernard calls me after every game now, and he's back in the fold," Pearl said. Meanwhile, Tennessee's freshmen - Smith, Duke Crews, Wayne Chism and Josh Tabb - will be back next year as sophomores playing alongside veterans like JaJuan Smith, Lofton, Ryan Childress and Jordan Howell.

Pearl said he plans to spend the weekend with his family, maybe take in a Vols baseball game and try to watch the Lady Vols play in their regional in Dayton.

"We're relevant now in college basketball and that was our goal, just to get us on the map, be competitive," Pearl said. "Certainly in hindsight, this team achieved at a very, very high level."

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