DAYTON, Ohio — A college basketball season is a six-month investment. You start in October and hit the end somewhere in March.
Unless you win it all and cut down the nets in some dome while they play “One Shining Moment,” the end comes hard.
It came especially hard for Tennessee on Friday, in the form of a 77-75 loss to Oklahoma State in a first-round NCAA tournament game.
And it came suddenly, too.
Until Tyler Smith’s 3-point shot hit the rim and bounced high, scraping the top of the backboard as the horn sounded, the Vols thought they were still playing on.
“When Tyler hit that ‘and-one’ I just knew we had that game won,’’ said UT guard Bobby Maze.
He referred to Smith’s basket and free throw with 24 seconds left, a sequence that would have been a worthy game-winner, putting the Vols up 75-74.
But Oklahoma State had time to answer with a three-point play of its own, courtesy of guard Byron Eaton.
So with 7.2 seconds to play, Tennessee had to conjure up another game-winning play. That was asking too much.
Smith’s last try was close but no cigar, a metaphor of sorts for this season.
An upset of Memphis in January slipped away at the end. Victory at Auburn escaped in a frantic finish.
An outright SEC Eastern Division champion slithered away on a last-second Alabama basket.
An SEC tournament championship died on a missed 3-pointer.
And Friday, another missed 3-pointer meant a one-and-done in the NCAA tournament for the first time in coach Bruce Pearl’s four seasons.
Just like that, it was over. The shot goes in, you come back on Sunday. It doesn’t go in, you get on the bus and go home.
As the finality hit, Smith slumped onto the bench, then walked off the court with his jersey pulled up over his face.
Pearl sought out official Mike Sanzere to make an adamant point that he thought an Oklahoma State foul could have been called on the screen to get Smith free for the shot.
This is the way hard endings look. No “One Shining Moment’’ this day.
“We’ll probably walk away from this campaign and think we left a little bit on the table,’’ Pearl said a little later, before the Vols vacated University of Dayton Arena.
The Vols won 21 games. That’s 10 fewer than last year’s school-record effort but a number Tennessee would take most years. Especially most pre-Pearl years.
“I did not get this team to play as well as it was capable of playing with enough consistency,’’ Pearl said
He’s right. This was Pearl’s most challenging season of his four at UT. There were the players gone from last year’s club. There were issues that nagged all season long and those issues were evident Friday.
The Vols ranked last of the 65-team tournament field on 3-point shooting percentage – and yet 33 of their 56 attempts against Oklahoma State were behind the arc. They made 11.
Their inability to defend penetrating guards rose up to bite them one last time. Oklahoma State shot 56.6 percent from the field. Eaton, the Cowboys’ hero, was 70 percent (7-of-10).
Maybe this game was lost when the Vols were downgraded to a No. 9 seed on Selection Sunday. The 8-9 game is, by definition, supposed to be a nail-biter.
Nail-biters have been another of UT’s issues. Since Maze’s game-winner at Arkansas on Feb. 4, the Vols are 0-4 in games decided by three or fewer points.
And here’s the if-and-maybe icing on the coulda-shoulda cake Friday:
No. 1 seed Pittsburgh hardly looked invincible in a 72-62 win over East Tennessee State in the other game here. Despite all of UT’s ups and downs over the past six months, maybe a third consecutive Sweet 16 wasn’t that far out of reach after all.
But for Tennessee, it’s over. Over too soon to suit anybody.
“I want ’em to know how close we were to being a really good team, to being a great team,’’ Pearl said. “At times we showed it.’’
It’s not the “great” part we’ll remember about this team, it’s the “close” part.
Right up until the end.
Mike Strange may be reached at strangem@knoxnews or 865-342-6276.