RALEIGH, N.C. — Long after the game had ended, once the handshakes, speeches, and interviews had been conducted and a sandwich had been grabbed and nibbled at, Sampson Carter was still wearing his uniform pants.
The final moments of a college career are rarely easy, and the finality hit Carter in the UMass locker room on Friday, deep inside PNC Arena, as he was peeling off his jersey top. It’s something he had done 134 times before. Now, with an 86-67 loss to Tennessee in the NCAA Tournament, it would be the 135th and final time that Carter would wear a Minutemen uniform.
Only one player in the storied history of UMass basketball has appeared in more games than Carter’s 135. The fifth-year senior desperately wanted a few more, but the Minutemen’s long-awaited return to the NCAA Tournament was cut painfully short by the surging Volunteers, who did everything better than UMass in what would be considered an upset by seed only.
It brought an ugly, lopsided end to a season in which UMass (24-9) started 10-0, won 16 of its first 17 games, returned to the Associated Press national rankings (getting as high as 13th), and appeared in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1998.
But when it mattered most, in the game you’d want to play your absolute best, UMass looked tentative and outclassed, once again falling into an early hole. The long build-up — both in the Minutemen’s NCAA Tournament dry spell and what became a resurgent season — was over in just a few hours.
Tennessee (23-12) didn’t even need that long to let everyone know how this one would play out. The Volunteers were bigger and stronger, and looked quicker and fresher, despite playing on Wednesday night in Dayton, Ohio, and flying straight to Raleigh after that game, not getting to their hotel until after 3 a.m. Thursday.
In almost every facet of the stat sheet, the 11th-seeded Volunteers manhandled sixth-seeded UMass, marching on to face upstart Mercer, which shocked Duke in Friday’s first game.
“We ran into a Tennessee team that played very physical and tough around the rim and took us out of a lot of things we try to do,” UMass coach Derek Kellogg said. “Hats off to Tennessee. They outplayed us today.”
From the opening tip, just about. UMass led once, with Derrick Gordon — mistakenly spelled Gordan on the arena scoreboard — scoring the game’s first basket. The only UMass player coming into the game with NCAA Tournament experience, Gordon stressed to his teammates how important the first few minutes would be. What the transfer from Western Kentucky saw gave him immediate cause for concern.
“They were nervous. It was like a deer in headlights,” Gordon said. “I was trying to tell them it was just another game. I don’t know if it was all the cameras, all the people. I don’t know what it was, but I could just tell those first four minutes, that a lot of people couldn’t adapt to it.”
It showed. UMass started like it had so many others recently: shooting poorly, turning the ball over, falling behind early.
The Minutemen even attempted a lineup switch to avoid falling into the same pattern, starting Maxie Esho at forward in place of Raphiael Putney. UMass had been one of only nine teams in the country to start the same lineup every game, but chose to sit the fifth-year senior in place of Esho, who was its best player a week ago at the Atlantic 10 tournament in Brooklyn.
It marked Esho’s first career start.
Didn’t work. Tennessee took control from the start, jumping out to leads of 8-2 and 21-8 before the game was even nine minutes old.
“Maxie’s been playing well, so I told Coach Kellogg he deserves that starting role and have me come off the bench,” said Putney, who played only 14 minutes and scored 2 points in his final game. Esho shared team-high honors with Chaz Williams, scoring 12 points.
Kellogg was primarily worried that the Volunteers’ size would pose problems, and it did, with bruising forwards Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon combining for 37 points and 25 rebounds. Collectively, those two made 12 of 18 shots and attempted 16 free throws, either wearing out a path to the foul line or converting near the basket whenever UMass cut into the lead.
Stokes (26 points, 14 rebounds) scored inside to give Tennessee a 48-36 lead, after UMass began the second half with a 14-5 run, trimming a 19-point halftime deficit to 10. Stokes then scored 6 straight points to push the lead to 21, four free throws sandwiched around a straight-on 18-footer that banked in off the backboard.
“My mind-set wasn’t to score the ball. I was somewhat worried about Chaz Williams getting into the lane,” said Stokes. “We held him under his averages the entire game.”
UMass wanted to push the pace with Williams, but Tennessee makes it tough to score, and held the Minutemen to 22 first-half points, matching their season low. The Volunteers’ first-half lead peaked at 20, a layup by Maymon (11 points, 11 rebounds) capping a 13-2 run and giving Tennessee a 36-16 lead with 3:40 left.
Less than two minutes later, another sign that this was going to be Tennessee’s night. Williams drove with the ball toward the basket, but at 5 feet 9 inches, the senior point guard was met by a wall of defenders. Undeterred, Williams went up, missed the shot, and fell hard to the court, one of the last times among the thousand or so that’s happened to him during his UMass career.
With Williams still sprawled on the court, he looked up in time to see Tennessee take the missed shot and sprint upcourt. Two passes and the ball was in the hands of Jordan McRae, who threw down a vicious, one-handed dunk to give his team a 20-point lead. There was little Williams, or the Minutemen, could do.
“We were too excited, I think. We were moving too fast, weren’t where we needed to be on offense and defense,” Williams said. “Once you get under the lights and the crowd starts roaring, you start second-guessing.”
Williams was seated next to Carter in the postgame locker room, a pair of fifth-year seniors who will be remembered for far better days than their last day in a UMass uniform. Williams was already dressed. Carter, quiet but measured, was taking his time, since it would be the last time.
“When I took my jersey top off I thought about it being the last time, but you can’t cry about it,” Carter said. “That’s not going to help anything.”Michael Whitmer can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.