PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Deep into the night, down to the final seconds, Tennessee found a way to advance in the NCAA tournament.
The Vols came out on top in a 62-59 slugfest over San Diego State (25-9) in a first-round game that spilled into early Friday morning at the Dunkin’ Donuts Center.
UT senior Wayne Chism hit a pair of free throws with 7.4 seconds left and San Diego State star Kawhi Leonard missed a trey at the buzzer.
“The way we won was the way we’ve been winning all year,’’ UT coach Bruce Pearl said. “We were very resilient.’’
Sixth-seeded Tennessee (26-8) advances to play Mid-American Conference tourney champ Ohio (22-14) at approximately 3:30 p.m. (TV: WVLT) Saturday.
The Bobcats defeated Georgetown 97-83 earlier Thursday, marking only the 15th time that a 14th-seeded team has defeated a No. 3 seed since the NCAA tournament expanded from 48 teams in 1985.
Melvin Goins was the Vols’ X-factor on offense, coming off the bench to score a career-high 15 points, including a 3-pointer with 14 seconds remaining that gave UT a 60-56 lead.
“Coach (Pearl) was hollering ‘stick, stick, stick,’ so that gave me the confidence to catch it and shoot it,’’ said Goins, who made 4 of 5 shots beyond the 3-point arc. “I felt like I needed to step up for us to have a chance to advance.’’
J.P. Prince added 15 points for the Vols, while Bobby Maze and Chism each had 11 points.
Prince’s heroics were as much at the defensive end, as he held Leonard to 12 points on 5-of-15 shooting while also pulling down six rebounds.
“J.P. was absolutely outstanding,’’ Pearl said. “Leonard is like Dennis Rodman; he’s such a talented player and tough player, but J.P. Is a tough kid, too, and that toughness doesn’t get enough attention.’’
D.J. Gay answered Goins trey with three free throws en route to his 16 points, and Kelvin Davis added 11.
San Diego State had won five straight entering the game, and the Aztecs rowdy crowd was behind them when Malcolm Thomas scored at the 9:20 mark to put SDSU up 45-44. It was the Aztecs first lead since 6:25 of the first half when they were up 21-20.
The Vols went back ahead 46-45 on their next trip down the court on a pair of Prince free throws with 9:01 left and didn’t trail again.
It wasn’t until after the final buzzer that the UT players were able to wish Pearl a happy 50th birthday, albeit technically a day late.
“When I woke up this morning, I thought to say something to him,’’ Maze said. “But then I realize the only way to give him his praise was to win this game.
“Now that we’ve done that, we can say Happy Birthday.’’
The 500 or so Vols’ fans in attendance sang the Happy Birthday song to Pearl as UT exited the court.
The Vols had held a seemingly comfortable 34-26 lead at the half as Prince scored 11 of his points through the first 20 minutes.
In addition to holding Leonard to 3-of-9 shooting in the first half, Prince was shooting 5 of 7 from the floor himself.
The teams traded the lead 11 times before the Vols took the lead into intermission, closing the first half on a 7-2 run on a Goins’ 3-pointer and two baskets from Prince.
The last time the Vols advanced past the first round of the NCAA trournament they advanced to the Sweet 16 in 2008 before being eliminated by Louisville.
UT was knocked out in the first round last year by Oklahoma State, 77-75.