Virginia reserve guard Ricky Stokes made two free throws with 15 seconds to play after Tennessee failed to put away the second-round NCAA basketball tournament game from the free-throw line and the third-ranked Cavaliers escaped with a 54-51 victory today at Market Square Arena.

"When it gets right down to it," said Tennessee Coach Don DeVoe, "we choked at the foul line."

Virginia, which had missed 12 of its first 17 free throws, trailed by seven points at halftime and by 10 early in the second half. Then the Cavaliers, aided by the unexpected return of guard Othell Wilson, exploited their big height advantage and Tennessee's severe foul problems. But they would not have advanced without Tennessee's mistakes at the foul line.

Minnesota, the No. 2 seed in this regional, was eight points down with 11 1/2 minutes to play against Tennessee-Chattanooga, but pulled out a 62-61 victory on 7-foot-3 center Randy Breuer's followup basket with 55 seconds to play in the second game.

Thus, Virginia (30-3) plays Alabama-Birmingham (24-5) and Minnesota (23-5) plays Louisville (21-9) in the national round of 16 Thursday at Birmingham.

Today, after making 10 of 12 free throws, Tennessee missed four of its last five in the final 3 minutes 12 seconds, including the front ends of three one-and-one situations. After Stokes' free throws, Tennessee had a chance to tie, but guard Michael Brooks missed a 20-foot jump shot and Virginia's Jeff Jones was fouled on the rebound; his free throw accounted for the final margin.

Guard Tyrone Beaman had a chance to give Tennessee a five-point lead with 3:12 left, but he missed the first shot of the bonus set. Next he made the first of a one and one, for a 51-47 lead. Brooks, who scored 24 points, missed his first free throw of the tournament on the next possession and backup center Dan Federmann did likewise on the ensuing one.

Asked whether he felt the pressure, Beaman, a sophomore who became a starter when Ed Littleton became academically ineligible on Christmas Eve, replied, "To be truthful, yes . . . I couldn't go up there and hit those last two or three free throws."

Virginia center Ralph Sampson, who dominated the second half and finished with 19 points and nine rebounds, had scored twice to tie the game at 51. During a timeout with 1:23 to play, Virginia decided to pass the ball among its three guards and call another timeout with 15 seconds left to set up a final shot.

But the Cavaliers never got that chance.

"We wanted the ball to go to Sampson, and we were going to foul him because he was their worst free-throw shooter," Beaman said. "But they didn't pass it to him. So I decided to go after Stokes for the steal, and we collided. I don't think it was a gamble. I went for the ball to steal it."

Stokes noticed DeVoe signaling his players to call a timeout, so he went directly to the Virginia bench. "I took a deep breath and tried to relax," he said. When he went to the foul line, he said his goal was to "concentrate and relax."

As he bounced the ball, the Tennessee fans in the crowd of 13,528 started counting how many dribbles the 5-10 sophomore had taken. "It didn't distract me," he said. "I didn't hear any people."

Virginia took a timeout to set up its man-to-man defense. DeVoe wanted either a short jump shot by Brooks or a pass to 6-7 SEC player of the year Dale Ellis, who had scored 16 points before Sampson shut him out for the final 14 1/2 minutes.

With Jones cutting off Brooks' passing lane, Tennessee's play broke down and, with about three seconds remaining, Brooks put up a 22-foot jumper. "I wanted a better shot, but Jones did a pretty good job in the passing lanes," Brooks said.

DeVoe complained that the clock right above midcourt hindered his team, because it was difficult for the players to see. But he also said that his young team had plenty of time to get the shot it wanted, but lacked patience.

Holland said Wilson helped the Cavaliers get guard penetration that helped move Tennessee's big men around, thus providing Virginia with good offensive rebounding position. Virginia, outrebounded in the first half, held a 19-7 margin in the second half, using offensive rebounds to get three straight baskets early in the half.

Wilson played with an electrical device that deadened pain in his thigh.

The second half was played at a deliberate pace, each team having only 20 possessions. But Virginia got 29 points, scoring on its first nine possessions, after which the Cavaliers led, 43-40, with 10:41 to play. But they started missing free throws again.

Tennessee was in such foul trouble that DeVoe, who usually scorns zone defense, used it for awhile after his team led, 38-28, with 18 minutes to play. "We practiced it to some extent," DeVoe said, "and we used it because we felt we could keep our players in the game longer."

But Sampson ruined the strategy. He had 13 points and five rebounds in the second half as Virginia's high-post offense succeeded in forcing Tennessee to play softer defense. He also kept Tennessee shooting outside. "They got the ball to him and he made the plays for them," said DeVoe. "Just his presence on the floor made everybody smaller and more tentative."