Tyrke Fau

University of Tennessee Volunteers basketball player Tyreke Key (4) scans the floor for an open teammate during a NCAA tournament game against the Florida Atlantic University Owls at Madison Square Garden, New York, Mar. 23, 2023.

NEW YORK — With an opportunity to close out Florida Atlantic and move on to the Elite Eight, Tennessee gave up a 18-2 run that completely flipped the game and ultimately led to the Vols’ Sweet 16 exit at Madison Square Garden Thursday night.

With its complete identity, Tennessee was one of the best teams in the country. The Vols completely lost their identity in that second half run and now they will go back to Knoxville rather than staying in New York to take on Kansas State.

Here is what happened during that fateful run and No. 4 Tennessee’s 62-55 loss to No. 9 FAU.

FAU used small size to its advantage

Looking to the game earlier this week, Tennessee’s height compared to the Owls seemed like the most obvious advantage. However, FAU’s speedy guards ended up torching the Vols’ on the glass 40-36.

Camping out on the perimeter, FAU’s guards would come crashing into the paint to either grab a rebound or poke the ball free from Tennessee’s hands.

“They were getting downhill,” sophomore guard Jahmai Mashack said. A lot of the guards were out on the perimeter. It’s hard to box out guys when they’re coming full steam ahead to the rim.”

This was especially effective on the offensive glass when the Owls would draw Tennessee’s defenders out to the perimeter and then beat them to the ball after a shot. Their ability to grab offensive rebounds was crucial during that 18-2 run in the second half. It also wore the Vols down so when they did get an offensive possession, they were still recovering from the previous defensive sequence.

“That’s tough when you work so hard on defense and then they get the ball back and get another shot at it,” senior forward Olivier Nkamhoua said. “It’s tough to keep getting those back-to-back stops without getting a chance to go on the offensive end.”

Tennessee couldn’t guard rotations

A fast-paced, ball movement-heavy team itself, Tennessee got a taste of its own medicine against FAU — and the Vols couldn’t guard it.

A quick swing out to the wing, a dish inside, a screen at the top of the key — when FAU forced Tennessee to switch on defense, it led to wide open threes.

“I think defensively we got put into a lot of rotations, just not guarding the ball as well as we’re used to,” freshman forward Julian Phillips said.

The Owls had five threes in the second half, including two during the 18-2 run. Tennessee’s inability to rotate properly was a reason why the Owls’ had so much success on offense.

Tennessee didn’t have the hero it needed

When the Vols were looking put Duke away in the round of 32, they went to Oliver Nkamhoua, who had 23 second-half points.

Tennessee didn’t get its hero on Thursday.

Desperately needing a basket during that 18-2 Owls’ run, the Vols had no answers offensively — just a few missed threes from Santiago Vescovi, Tyreke Key and Josiah-Jordan James. If Tennessee could have gotten that spark, it likely would be preparing for Kansas State in the Elite Eight. Instead, the Vols fell victim of another upset.

Whether it was the high of the Duke game wearing off, or just an off night, Tennessee couldn’t get what it needed on Thursday.

“It’s basketball. It’s anyone’s game,” Nkamhoua said. “If you come out a step slow you might lose.”

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