ST. LOUIS — Ohio State has one of the best players in the country in Evan Turner. Tennessee has what seems like an endless supply of nasty, stingy defenders.
No secret who’s going to win that battle.
Brian Williams scored the go-ahead basket on a tip-in with 32 seconds left,and J.P. Prince was relentless on Turner, blocking a desperation 3-pointer at the buzzer Friday night to lead the Volunteers past Ohio State 76-73 and into the NCAA tournament’s round of eight for the first time.
“I was tired,” Prince said. “I just said I’ll save it all for defense. That’s all I did. I know those last two minutes I was going to make them work. I knew nobody wanted it more than I did.”
Wayne Chism finished with 22 points — all but four in the second half — and 11 rebounds for the sixth-seeded Vols (28-8), who pulled out a back-and- forth tussle in the Midwest Regional semifinals.
Turner, a candidate to add national honors to his Big Ten player of the year award, carried the No. 2 seed Buckeyes single-handedly in the second half. He scored 21 of his 31 points in the final period, while the rest of the Buckeyes went just 3-of-16 from the field. He actually had two shots in the final three seconds, but he missed from deep in the left corner, then got the ball back. With Prince all over him, Turner’s last shot from near the top of the key didn’t even get to the rim.
As the Tennessee players celebrated, Turner walked off the court with his head bowed.
“I can’t give a percentage right now,” Turner said, his eyes red and his voice catching, when asked if he’ll return to Ohio State for his senior year. “I really don’t want to go out like this.”
Few expected this from the Vols considering where they were on Jan. 1. Tyler Smith, their leading scorer last season, was dismissed from the team and Williams, Cameron Tatum and Melvin Goins were suspended after a gun and marijuana were found during a traffic stop.
But nine days later, Tennessee stunned then-No. 1 Kansas, and the Vols emerged as an even stronger team. Now, they’re one win from the Final Four.
Tennessee will play Sunday against fifth-seeded Michigan State.
“It sounds real good, and we’re living it up right now,” Chism said.
For the Buckeyes, it’s an opportunity lost. No one appeared to benefit more than Ohio State (29-8) when No. 1 overall seed Kansas was upset by Northern Iowa in the second round.
Add in third-seeded Georgetown’s first-round loss and fourth-seeded Maryland’s loss last weekend, and Ohio State had what looked like a clear path to its second Final Four in four years.
To get there, though, the Buckeyes needed more than Turner. William Buford (15) was the only other scorer in double figures. Jon Diebler, so big for Ohio State in the first two rounds, shot 1 of 7 from 3-point range.
“Obviously, it hasn’t hit me to the point where I think it’s over,” coach Thad Matta said. “They’re distraught because this isn’t where they thought it was going to end.”
Ohio State had won four of its previous five meetings against Tennessee, including a matchup in the 2007 regional semifinals. But these Buckeyes are far different from that squad, which featured an NBA-caliber roster that included Greg Oden, Mike Conley Jr. and Daequan Cook.
These Buckeyes do have Turner. But it’s a game of 5-on-5, not 1-on-5.
“I told our team, ‘It’s our team vs. their six,’” Volunteers coach Bruce Pearl said. “We were a better 10 than their six.”
After making only three baskets in the first half — including Ohio State’s last with 22 seconds left — Turner surpassed that output in the first 5:12 of the second half. David Lighty finally gave him some help, scoring on a layup to put Ohio State in front 59-56 with 7:37 to play.
But Tennessee responded with a 12-4 run, getting contributions from four different players.
Chism, who seemed to get a boost when he took off his bright orange headband at halftime, gave the Vols a 72-70 lead with 1:39 to play. Turner came up with yet another big play, swishing a 3 from just beyond the arc with less than 42 seconds to go. But Williams, a big, bruising center, tipped in Prince’s miss on a layup.
Turner missed at the other end and Kyle Madsen lost the ball under the basket. With less than 13 seconds left, Turner fouled Maze, who after a timeout, coolly blew a kiss to someone in the Tennessee fan section. He made both free throws, giving Tennessee a 76-73 lead.
“Honestly, there wasn’t a doubt in my mind I was going to make those,” Maze said. “I felt more pressure shooting them in practice. If the big men win, they make fun of us.”
The Vols knew Ohio State would get the ball to Turner and they were ready. More than ready.
“You’ve got to contest the shot,” Prince said. “He’s going to have to earn it if he’s going to make that shot.”