ST. LOUIS - It was a day Tennessee basketball will never forget. So close. So agonizing.
"These just stay with you forever,'' a drained, soft-spoken coach Bruce Pearl said Sunday after watching a dream die.
Michigan State won the day and the prize - a trip to the Final Four.
After 39 minutes and 58 seconds, fate still hadn't settled on a winner or a loser.
In that two precious seconds left over, Michigan State got a whistle and Raymar Morgan hit a free throw. Tennessee still had time for a prayer of a shot, but that's all it was and it went unanswered.
No Christian Laettner miracles this day. So Michigan State won, 70-69.
So close. So agonizing.
That 29-point loss to Kentucky in the SEC tournament two weeks ago? The particulars are already getting fuzzy.
Ones like this are different. Pearl is certain he will remember every detail from this day forward.
How the Spartans got a basket on an out-of-bounds play at the buzzer to end the first half.
How his defense broke down at critical points in the second half, allowing Michigan State shooters open looks that they knocked down.
How Tennessee missed a few free throws at bad times.
How missed box-outs allowed Michigan State so many second-chance points.
But on this first Elite Eight day in UT men's basketball history, there were also many good memories to take away and cherish forever.
"It hit home when we entered the dome and saw the orange pouring in,'' said UT men's athletic director Mike Hamilton.
"At some point I saw an overhead shot (on the JumboTron) and I was blown away with the amount of orange.''
Tennessee's team represented the program in first-class fashion Sunday at the Edward Jones Dome. So did Tennessee's fans.
Attendance was listed at 25,242. A whole lot of them were wearing orange.
Some were here Friday night for a pulsating win over Ohio State. More came in droves Sunday.
"They recognize we've made a lot of progress in our basketball program,'' said Hamilton. "They wanted to be here to support the guys.''
Pearl's reference point on that progress goes back to November 2006, his second season at UT.
The Vols went to Madison Square Garden in New York for the final four of the Preseason NIT. There was Gonzaga, North Carolina and Butler, all with rich basketball traditions.
Tennessee didn't bring a pep band or cheerleaders (it was still football season). There were only a few UT fans scattered around.
And the team didn't show up, either, getting hammered by Butler and North Carolina.
"We looked like an SEC football school rounding out the field,'' Pearl recalled. "I was embarrassed.''
Not Sunday, he wasn't.
Tennessee competed on the court like a basketball school, battling Michigan State to the buzzer. The Spartans will play in the Final Four for the sixth time in the past 12 years, but it's unlikely any of the previous five were as difficult to attain as this one.
"Everybody in this locker room feels like we should have won this game,'' said junior Brian Williams.
Tennessee had all the trappings of a basketball school in the stands, too.
"We looked like a real basketball program here,'' Pearl said. "Our fans were tremendous.
"We were no SEC football school that was rounding out a field.''
There was a football coach - Derek Dooley - cheering in the sea of orange. But UT answered the bell on the biggest basketball stage it's ever seen.
Getting back there is never to be taken for granted. Pearl knows that.
"We'll get here again,'' he vowed.
"This was a baby step, a step in the right direction. The big step would be to get to the Final Four.
"We're headed in the right direction. We're doing the right things.
"It's great to be a Tennessee Vol. What can I tell you?''
Only every detail of a Sunday when Tennessee looked like a basketball program.
Mike Strange may be reached at email@example.com or 865-342-6276.