INDIANAPOLIS, IN — Tennessee was eight-point favorites in its first round matchup against 12th-seeded Oregon State, but it took only five minutes for the Beavers to take control of the game as they coasted to a 70-56 win for their first NCAA Tournament victory in 39 years.
A season that began with great promise and saw the Vols as SEC favorites and Final Four contenders in early January ends with an upset loss after a turbulent six weeks.
The first half was one of Tennessee’s worst all season long as the Beavers dominated the opening frame, building a 33-19 lead.
“We talked about it very first time out, look, hey, guys, it's a game. Quit acting like it's something more than it is here,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said. “We worked hard to get here. You're here, but getting here is part of it. Now you've got to want to make something out of it. Then we'd come out of the time-out and actually wouldn't execute. Somebody would say, I've got to go make it happen. Just too many guys were in that kind of mindset and just too many guys trying to do too much.
The 19 points was the least Tennessee has scored in a half all season. The Vols looked lost for most of the half with three-point shots not falling and leading guard Keon Johnson struggling. Tennessee missed its first nine three pointers in the first half before hitting two in the final minutes of the half to finish two-of-13 from beyond the arc.
“We came out and we didn’t execute anything that we had been practicing over the last couple weeks,” Tennessee forward Josiah Jordan James said. “We were flustered and it probably looked like we were scared, but that’s how the game goes. I feel like as the game went on, the jitters got out and we didn’t give ourselves a chance to win. That’s what hurt us the most. You can’t start out games like that against any good team that you’re playing against and expect to win with your back against the wall.”
With three-pointers not falling the Vols needed to score in the interior but its leading option, Johnson, struggled, not scoring until the buzzer beater of the first half. The freshman finished the first half one-of-seven from the field.
With Johnson struggling, John Fulkerson out due to a face injury and Yves Pons spending nine first half minutes on the bench due to foul trouble, the Vols were dominated in the paint.
Barnes was forced to play Oliver Nkamhoua and Uros Plavsic extensive minutes in the first half after playing off-and-on throughout the season. The duo struggled as Oregon State scored 20 points in the paint and grabbed eight offensive rebounds in the first half.
Oregon State center Roman Silva led the game in scoring with 16 points on eight-of-eight shooting.
The second half would see Tennessee’s offense find some life, scoring 37 points, led by Johnson who scored 12 second half points. However, Oregon State’s perimeter shooting that helped them win the PAC 12 Tournament showed up as any time the Vols were able to cut into the deficit, the Beavers had an answer on the other end, oftentimes a triple.
“Defensively, I felt like we weren't moving the way we needed to,” Barnes said. “I just felt like we needed to be more aggressive to play the kind of defense we normally play. Some of that, what carries over on offense carries over on defense as well.
Oregon State shot seven-of-13 from beyond the arc in the second half, led by Jared Lucas, Maurice Calloo and Zach Reichle who each hit two triples in the second half.
Lucas scored 14 points for the Beavers on four-of-nine three point shooting. Ethan Thompson and Reichle each reached double digits as well.
Tennessee will now have to do some soul searching after a disappointing season. The Vols’ offense was a major point of inconsistency from the first game of the year on. It was only a matter of time before it bit Tennessee in the NCAA Tournament, unfortunately for the Vols it didn’t take long.
“We've got to have an inside presence,” Barnes said of the Vols’ offense going forward. “We've never had some kind of an inside presence. We didn't have any at all today. I'm not talking -- there's different ways to do it. You can drive the ball.”
Tennessee has just two seniors on its roster in Yves Pons and John Fulkerson. Due to NCAA COVID-19 rules both players will be eligible to return for another season of play. Pons and freshmen Johnson and Jaden Springer are likely to leave for the NBA. Fulkerson’s decision seems more up in the air, especially after missing his last two games due to injury.