I've been distracted from my creative ways the past few weeks because I've been "dancing" with my team, the Tennessee Vols Men's Basketball Team, in the NCAA Tournament. After what can only be described as an unpredictably difficult year, Bruce Pearl and the Vols soldiered on through much adversity over the past year. They were valiant and worked hard to get an invitation to the "Big Dance", though they were a bit disappointed to receive only a #6 seed in the Midwest Region. Little did anyone expect that the Midwest bracket would be turned upside down the first weekend with top-seeded Kansas losing to a Northern Iowa team no-one ever talked about. It was a sign. The Vols beat a fiesty San Diego State team to advance to the 2nd round, then dominated Ohio University to return to the Sweet Sixteen. Very few of the experts thought the Vols could beat National Player-of-the-Year Evan Turner and Ohio State, but they did. Only one gave them a chance against Michigan State in the Elite Eight. The Vols had never made it to the Elite 8 before, but they came out and played marvelously. The teams proved to be evenly matched, with one never able to place much distance ahead of the other. It ended as the whole game had been played, neck and neck with one hitting the right shot in the closing seconds of the game. When the buzzer sounded the Vols were one point short after a crazy scurry of activity by both teams. Only one can advance, and this time it was Michigan State. It could just as easily been the Vols...and that was hard to watch.
It was hard to see my Vols lose by one point in the closing seconds of the game against Michigan State, but I have never been more proud of a group of Vols basketball players for what these hard-working, dedicated guys pulled off this season. When Tyler Smith made his huge mistake and got three other players in trouble for it, Wayne Chism and JP Prince took ownership of the team and led a scrappy bunch to huge, unexpected wins over top-rated Kansas and Kentucky. They played with heart. They played with class. They honored the coach and the University that had given them so much the past 3-4 years. They stuck it out when the going was rough, tough, and downright ugly. They did what the naysayers bragged a Tennessee team couldn't do. They went where no TN men's basketball team had ever had the opportunity to go. Vol fans are proud they made it to the Elite Eight.
Just an aside...I was especially tickled by (CBS-TV announcer) Verne Lundquist's charming comments about JP Prince's "salute" after he made a big slam dunk or alley oop. Lundquist has been a Vol fan for decades (also a fan of Chism and Prince), so it seemed fitting that he called our tourney games. What he and most folks didn't know was who JP was saluting after those plays. It wasn't an act of ego...just the opposite. It was one guy's way of silently acknowledging his father, the grade and high school basketball coach who had given so much to his son. JP was just saying "Thanks Dad, I love you!". I think that's pretty cool. And in the post-game interviews when Wayne Chism was asked his feelings about playing in the Elite 8? He swallowed hard a couple of times, paused, then croaked... "blessed." That's a pretty special player in my book...and He led a pretty special team. Championship trophies are great, but they aren't everything. Winning comes in many forms, and this year the Vols were the best kind of winners in my book. I'm very proud to be a Tennessee Vol alumae *and* fan. I too feel very blessed. Thanks Wayne!