What were either of these teams doing in Dayton?
I know the first third of Tennessee's season and the last third of Iowa's raised questions, and these teams both had their ugly moments slugging it out in the first half. After Iowa blitzed the Vols with a 16-4 run to open the game, Tennessee settled down and slowly chipped it down to 29-26 at halftime. But the second half was the best programming you'll see on TruTV all year, showcasing two really good basketball teams going right at each other.
Iowa, with two starters in foul trouble and Roy Devyn Marble held in check by Josh Richardson, proved its depth was way more than hype. Adam Woodbury was alarmingly successful against Jarnell Stokes, 16 points on 8 of 11 shooting. The Hawkeyes got more points from their bench (35) than their starters (30) and were incredibly clean with just six turnovers.
But Tennessee kept coming. After a quick Iowa spurt to open the second half, every possession in the final 18 minutes was played with the game within five points or less. The Vols were used to blowing teams out or losing, but here in their most important game they learned how to just keep attacking and never give up.
Josh Richardson tied it with a three with 14:29 to go. Iowa scored immediately to retake the lead and wouldn't surrender it for another 11 minutes. When Peter Jok hit a three to put the Hawkeyes up 43-38 with 11:53 to go and the Vols had both Jarnell Stokes and Jordan McRae on the bench, it looked like danger zone.
Enter Richardson. It's a disservice to tonight's effort to say this was the best game of his career. Richardson guarded Roy Devyn Marble, an all-conference player in a league that plays incredible basketball. He went 3 of 15, his worst shooting performance since November 10. In the last four weeks Richardson has completely shut down a number of great scorers from the opposition: Rod Odom had four points. Against the SEC's two leading scorers? Chris Denson had three, Jabari Brown had eight on 1 of 10 shooting. And tonight, he did his thing on the best player on a tournament team.
Richardson's always been that guy defensively and is now doing it at an even higher level. But his offensive work tonight was even more impressive. At the 43-38 mark, Richardson made consecutive mid-range jumpers, then was feeling so good he exploded off the baseline for a tomahawk jam none of us knew he had in his arsenal. Richardson finishes with 17 points and 8 rebounds to go with his unbelievable defense.
None of it was enough to take the lead, because Iowa kept plugging too. Threes from Antonio Barton and Jordan McRae around another Richardson jumper were only enough to pull the Vols within one with 6:41 to go, ending a spurt of Tennessee and Iowa scoring 12 times in the last 14 possessions combined. Then the Hawkeyes pushed the lead back to five and Cuonzo Martin called a timeout with 4:33 to go. This was it: either the Vols learned how to play winning basketball in crunch time, or the season was over.
Stokes and Richardson went 4/4 at the free throw line; for the game the Vols were 25 of 30 (!). Then Barton knocked down another three, finally putting the Vols in front 59-57 with 3:12 to go.
That lasted all of one possession, as Roy Devyn Marble finally came alive with an and-one to put the Hawkeyes back up. After Stokes hit two free throws and Woodbury scored again, the Vols missed a three but Josh Oglesby missed a jumper. So with a minute to go, the Vols had the ball down one.
UT went to its leader, and Jeronne Maymon answered the call. Maymon scored against contact, putting the Vols up one and going to the line. He missed, but the Vols retained possession in the loose ball scramble, and then Stokes was fouled. He split a pair, putting UT up a deuce with 25 seconds to go. Enter Devyn Marble again, who stuck a fadeaway jumper with 18 seconds left to tie it again. When Jordan McRae missed at the buzzer, we were off to overtime. Whew.
The Vols did enough to get it to the finish line in regulation, then made sure they left no doubt in overtime. Jarnell Stokes got the party started with an and-one, and McRae finished off a backdoor lay-in on a great assist by, of course, Richardson. Up five, Tennessee let their defense do the talking for the next two minutes, and by the time Antonio Barton was intentionally fouled with 1:38 to play, Iowa was gassed and the Vols were cruising. Barton hit all four free throws, and four more from McRae capped an unbelievable 14-1 overtime session that sends the Vols through to Raleigh, the season very much alive.
Hats off to Iowa for playing 40 strong minutes of basketball even without Devyn Marble as a factor until the final minutes. And everyone from Tennessee wishes Coach McCaffery and his family the very best.
The first NCAA Tournament win doesn't always feel like the biggest win of your season. But thanks to the quality of the SEC and the roller coaster nature of this season, you can bet this team is celebrating this one like no other tonight. It's on to UMass very soon, but the Vols and Cuonzo Martin absolutely earned this one tonight. This Tennessee team was down five with 4:33 to play, and won by 13 in overtime. That's Tennessee's very best basketball when we needed it most.
We need it again in 48 hours. Dance and advance.