ST. LOUIS — Begin in a car speeding down a Knoxville highway on New Year's morning. The car had an open bottle of liquor, a bag of marijuana and two unlicensed guns. Not to mention four University of Tennessee basketball players.
If that seems an unlikely place to start an NCAA Tournament story, you should see where it goes from there. Suspensions, a dismissal and a dartboard of lineups. Apologies, plea bargains and more victories than anyone might have guessed.
Three months later, the story still has no end. For a 76-73 upset of No. 2 seed Ohio State on Friday night extended the season further than a Tennessee men's basketball team has ever known. The sixth-seeded Vols are in their first region final and one victory from the Final Four.
"To see where some of us were at, to see where I was at, this is just a blessing," said center Brian Williams, who was suspended for his role in the New Year's incident. "We've been through so much, things that people don't even know about, but we stuck together. We believed in each other. This is like a brotherhood."
Brothers by fire, if not blood. Tennessee had to juggle roles and dip deep into the bench in the weeks after the incident. Tyler Smith, an NBA prospect and the Vols' best offensive threat, was kicked off the team. Williams was suspended for nine games, and guards Melvin Goins and Cameron Tatum were suspended for four games each.
Yet when it came to unity and trust on Friday night, there was no mistaking which team had the greater bond. Ohio State was completely dependent on player-of-the-year candidate Evan Turner in the second half; the Vols worked in synch all night long.
Tennessee had no one who could match Turner on jump shots and drives into the lane, but the Vols didn't need one. They pounded the ball inside to Wayne Chism and Williams, and dominated the Buckeyes on the boards.
"That was the plan coming in," Williams said. "We were going to destroy them down low, and me and Wayne did that on the offensive and defensive ends. Turner is the best player in the nation. He did what he's done all season. But we came together as a team."
No matter what the Vols say today, no one could have seen this coming in January. For the better part of two months, they were a team without an identity. The offense has struggled at times. There is no consistent threat from the outside. Yet, out of necessity, the defense and rebounding have gotten better and better.
And along the way, the Vols may have learned some things about themselves. Perhaps that they are more resilient and their bench is deeper than they have ever imagined. Perhaps that mistakes can be overcome. And maybe that a team is greater than any individual.
"In life, when you don't get an opportunity or somebody gets one in front of you, you tend to sometimes give up or quit. You don't stay ready for your opportunity," Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said. "We had several players that weren't playing, that were the 10th, 11th, 12th guys, nonscholarship guys. They stayed ready when their opportunity came.
"It brought out the best in some guys, and that's what a team is all about. You're going to have injuries; you're going to have situations that happen. And whatever we do, we're a family, and we've got to stay together."
By game's end, Ohio State seemed to have little left. Three starters played all 40 minutes, and the Buckeyes got only 25 minutes out of their bench. Tennessee, on the other hand, got 60 minutes out of its reserves. Which may explain why the Vols outscored Ohio State 24-16 in the final nine minutes.
"We all get tired. We all need help. We're not going to be perfect," said Vols senior guard J.P. Prince. "We knew that their six wouldn't be able to run with us the whole game because we had more depth. You could tell they were tired in the second half. Their legs weren't there, and their shots didn't fall the same as in the first half."
For Tennessee, the wait had gone on forever. The Vols made their first Sweet 16 in 1967, and they had been to four more over the years. Tennessee did not make the extra step to the Elite Eight until this team showed up. This flawed, ramshackle, grateful team.
"I'm a firm believer in God, and I believe what happened was a blessing," said Goins. "It's truly a blessing for me to be here right now and share this moment with my teammates and contribute and be a part of this Elite Eight team."
John Romano can be reached at [email protected]