It was time to reward the guys who helped the Volunteers get there.
One Blogging Moment: Vols off to Missouri
J.P. Prince scored 18 points and Scotty Hopson had 17 to lead sixth-seeded Tennessee to an 83-68 victory over Ohio on Saturday and give the Vols their third Sweet 16 berth in four years. The other starters pitched in, too: Brian Williams and Wayne Chism had 12 rebounds apiece, and Bobby Maze had nine assists.
But Pearl wanted them to share the celebration with the reserves who filled in after a New Year's Day gun, drug and alcohol bust left Tennessee with just six scholarship players.
"There's no question, Josh Bone and Renaldo Woolridge, Skylar McBee - those guys all played a lot in a stretch of games," Pearl said. "We're a team, we're a family, and those guys got us through. ... We don't get here to this game if Melvin Goins doesn't step up to San Diego State, and Cameron Tatum, I thought, played well. And so it's a team."
Tennessee (27-8) will play the winner of Sunday's Ohio State-Georgia Tech game in St. Louis. The Vols have never gotten past the third round, including losses to Ohio State and Louisville under Pearl in 2007 and '08.
"I've been there twice already and came up short twice," Chism said. "I'm happy to be back on that stage again, and I just can't wait to get there."
Tommy Freeman scored 23 points for Ohio, which was the lowest seed to get out of the first round. But he didn't get enough help from Armon Bassett and D.J. Cooper, the guards who starred in the first-round victory over third-seeded Georgetown before combining for 23 points on 7-of-23 shooting against Tennessee.
Tennessee also dominated inside, outscoring the Mid-American Conference champions 58-12 in the paint.
"Right now," Ohio coach John Groce said, "I'm not thinking about the MAC tournament run right now or the win against Georgetown. I'm thinking about what we could have done better to play better. ... I do know that I'm awfully proud of our guys for not flinching numerous times during the season."
Each of Saturday's games in Providence matched a double-digit seed against a team from a power conference. But one-half hour after tiny Saint Mary's knocked off Villanova -- a No. 2 seed and a Final Four participant in 2009 -- Ohio failed in its attempt to be just the third No. 14 seed to reach the Sweet 16 since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985.
"It's a great experience, especially being a freshman," Cooper said. "Just makes you more humble, makes you more hungry and makes you know what you have to do for next year, for the guys coming back."
The Bobcats (22-15) trailed by six points midway through the second half before the Vols went on a 10-1 run to put it away.
Tennessee had an even more remarkable run after the New Year's Day incident -- three players were suspended, and starter Tyler Smith was kicked off the team -- a traffic stop that resulted in gun, drug and alcohol charges. They won their next five games, beating top-ranked Kansas with six scholarship players and three walk-ons.
"The character of this team has been building," said Goins, who was among those arrested; all charges against him were later dismissed. "I think we're saying something for ourselves. We have been through a lot, and just to have the chance to advance to the Sweet 16 is a blessing."
The Bobcats earned their underdog status honestly: They were 7-9 in the Mid-American Conference this season and a No. 9 seed in the 12-team league tournament. But they swept through though the MAC postseason and then dispatched the Hoyas 97-83.
"It's bittersweet," Bassett said. "We've got a lot to be proud of. We weathered the storm and got a MAC championship when everybody counted us out. And we advanced in the tournament and beat a great team, a great program. So we've got a lot to be happy about."
The Vols took the lead with an 18-2 run that started with 12 minutes left in the first half, turning a two-point deficit into a 14-point lead. Ohio kept firing 3-pointers -- they tried 26 in the game, making 10 -- but never got any closer than 50-45 on Freeman's 3-pointer with 13 minutes to play.