INDIANAPOLIS — His eyes red and swollen from fighting and wiping away the tears, Jordan McRae slumped over in a blue folding chair and buried his face into a white towel inside one of Lucas Oil Stadium’s locker rooms.
After nearly two weeks and three games of joy and jubilation, the Tennessee guard and his teammates were experiencing the other side of March Madness.
Namely, the reality that an NCAA tournament run, a season and careers, in some cases, were over.
After the Volunteers whittled a 15-point second-half deficit to one against second-seeded Michigan, Jarnell Stokes was called for a charge when the Vols had a chance to win the game, and the Wolverines edged 11th-seeded Tennessee 73-71 in a Midwest Region semifinal Friday night.
“To lose how we did, after how we fought back, it really hurts,” McRae said after leading the Vols with 24 points in his final game at Tennessee.
With 10:56 left, Michigan took its largest lead of the game on Spike Albrecht’s layup that made it 60-45.
Yet Tennessee (24-13) got back in the game with an 8-0 run and trimmed the deficit to 72-67 entering the final 1:56 before the Wolverines, the Big Ten regular-season champions who lost to Louisville in the 2013 national championship game, aided the vols with four turnovers.
McRae and Josh Richardson each scored for Tennessee, and when Caris LeVert stepped on the baseline catching an inbounds pass, the Vols suddenly had the ball down 72-71 with 9.6 seconds left.
Stokes took the ball in the post, drive to his right and ran into Michigan center Jordan Morgan, who led the Wolverines with 15 points, as another defender stripped the 6-foot-8 forward of the ball.
Official David Hall, standing along the baseline, pointed the other way to signal a charge.
“They made a call,” Vols coach Cuonzo Martin said. “To give you an exact answer, I have to go back and watch film. But he was moving. Both guys were moving. But with the new rule, I’m not sure.”
Said Stokes: “With the new rules, I had no idea that could potentially happen. I felt like [Hall] anticipated that to happen. What’s done is done. I’m kind of sick about it, but it’s already done.”
McRae more openly disagreed with the call.
“With the magnitude of this game,” he said, “I don’t think you can call a charge at that point.”
Nik Stauskas, who scored 14 points for Michigan (28-8), split a pair of free throws with 2.1 seconds left, and McRae’s halfcourt heave sailed over the backboard at the buzzer.
A Tennessee NCAA tournament run that began in Dayton, Ohio, with an overtime win against Iowa and continued with wins against Massachusetts and Mercer in Raleigh, N.C., turned a disappointing regular season into the program’s seventh trip to the tournament’s round of 16.
The Vols are still looking for their second Elite Eight appearance, though.
“It felt like that game was ours,” said freshman point guard Darius Thompson, who was on the floor for much of the Vols’ late rally. “It felt like it was in our hands. Everything’s going perfectly fine to get us back into the game, and that just happened.
“It’s very tough. It’s very tough to lose like that. After making the run like we did and everything we’ve been through throughout the year, it’s tough to lose like that.”
After Michigan jumped out to a 15-7 lead, Tennessee answered with a 12-3 run to go briefly ahead. The Wolverines, who finished the game shooting 55 percent and 11-of-20 on 3s, then went on a 16-4 run and had the Vols, who had been sharp defensively during the late-season run, off balance and hanging on for dear life.
The Wolverines shot 61.5 percent and were 7-of-9 on 3-pointers in the first half and led 45-34 at the break. The 45 points were the most allowed by the Vols in a first half this season, surpassing South Carolina-Upstate’s 42 points way back in November.
“You can’t just put it all on the last play,” Vols point guard Antonio Barton said. “It was more so the first half. We have to come out with better awareness. We got down early, and we dug ourselves a hole. We tried to get out at the last minute.”
It was, perhaps, Tennessee’s season in a nutshell.
Seemingly left for dead after a second loss to Texas A&M on Feb. 22, Tennessee won five of six games to nab one of the tournament’s final bids and won its three tournament games by 13, 19 and 20 points by playing its best basketball of the season.
That, and Friday night’s resilient rally, won’t ease the immediate pain of the season-ending defeat.
“It was surreal. I definitely enjoyed the whole ride,” Stokes said. “I enjoyed playing with my teammates. I felt like we didn’t come out and play Tennessee basketball. I felt like we played not even half to our potential, and I’m probably going to look back on this game and say there’s so many things we could’ve done differently. It still felt like we should’ve won.”
It’s a feeling that probably won’t go away for a few days for the Vols.
“I think the season was fantastic,” senior forward Jeronne Maymon said. “We set goals at the beginning of the season. We fell one game short of that. We wanted to make it to the Elite Eight, but everything happens for a reason.”
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...