CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Tennessee’s turbulent men’s basketball season came crashing to an end Friday afternoon.
Eighth-seeded Michigan eliminated the No. 9-seeded Vols 75-45 in a second round game in the West Region of the NCAA tournament at Time Warner Cable Arena.
The margin of defeat was the largest of UT coach Bruce Pearl’s six seasons with the Vols.
Pearl’s future with the program is uncertain after UT athletic director Mike Hamilton said in a radio interview that aired on Wednesday that he wasn’t sure if Pearl would return next season.
Hamilton called Pearl to apologize for his remarks on Wednesday, and later that night told Pearl and his coaching staff that his remarks had been “misconstrued” by the media, according to three sources who asked to remain anonymous because of an ongoing evaluation of the program.
Junior Cameron Tatum said the players did their best not to be distracted by Hamilton’s comments.
“To some degree we felt we had to press; it’s human nature to want to win for your head coach,’’ said Tatum, who scored five points on 2-of-9 shooting. “But we don’t want to use that for an excuse.
“They just got hot, and we couldn’t throw it in the ocean.’’
The Wolverines (21-13) built on a 33-29 halftime lead, opening the second half on a 19-2 run to go up 52-31 at the 13:46 mark on a Jordan Morgan dunk.
The Vols (19-15) appeared helpless to counter, turning the ball over 18 times in the game and missing open shots throughout.
“We unraveled,’’ Pearl said. “This game was not indicative of our season in the sense that even when we were struggling down the stretch, we were right there in virtually every game.
“Our two worst losses of the year were here in this building at Charlotte ...”
Eerily, UT’s 15-of-43 (34.9 percent) shooting performance against Michigan tied its worst effort of the season in the 49-48 loss to Charlotte on Dec. 17.
The Vols controlled the action in Friday’s game for much of the first half, taking their largest lead at 23-17 at the 7:14 mark when Scotty Hopson split a pair of free throws.
The converted free throw represented Hopson’s final scoring shot in the game, as he finished with a season-low four points on 1-of-5 shooting.
Tobias Harris picked up the scoring slack early, but all of his team-high 19 points came in the first half on 6-of-6 shooting.
Michigan adjusted to the freshman power forward in the second half, and Harris went 0-for-5 over the final 20 minutes.
“In the first half I was getting the ball in my positions and making plays from there,’’ said Harris, who also led the Vols with five rebounds and 36 minutes played. “The second half they started to double down in the post. I tried to do what I could and kick it out and try to get other guys shots and plays.
“It was more of them on their offensive end making plays and really breaking us down which caused us to force shots on our offensive end and create turnovers.’’
UT senior center Brian Williams, who made his first start since the Vols’ SEC opener on Jan. 8 at Arkansas, said the team panicked after the Wolverines’ opening salvo in the second half.
“They made a run to start the second half, and we tried to get it back as fast as possible by doing things we don’t normally do, like taking a lot of threes,’’ said Williams, who scored two points and didn’t get a rebound in his 16 minutes.
“This is disappointing and embarrassing, not only for ourselves, but for the university, our families and every fan we’ve got all over the country.’’
Michigan coach John Beilein left most of his starters in until the final moments, as an Evan Smotrycz 3-pointer with 1:48 left put the Wolverines up 75-42 — the largest deficit of Pearl’s UT tenure.
Zack Novak was the top scorer among the five Michigan players who scored in double figures with 14 points.
Michigan out-rebounded the Vols 36-26 and out-scored them in the paint 46-22.
“It’s been an exhausting, unfortunate season,’’ said UT senior Steven Pearl, who had three of the team’s six offensive rebounds but failed to score in the 10 minutes he played. “My dad wants to retire as Tennessee’s head coach, that won’t change, and I hope he does. He deserves to be back.’’