scored 18 points and grabbed 13 boards, domating down the stretch for the Vols. (Al Behrman)
DAYTON – If Tennessee were to get anywhere in March, the Volunteers would need Jarnell Stokes and Jordan McRae to carry the team. The two players are the Vols' best offensive options and complement each other perfectly when things are clicking. Nowhere was this more evident than in Tennessee's game vs. Iowa in the First Four, as McRae and Stokes combined to score 38 to lift the Volunteers over Iowa in overtime, 78-65.
Iowa’s defense, which had been awful during the Hawkeyes late-season skid that saw the team lose six of its last seven, stepped up in the first few minutes, leading to an early 8-0 lead. Tennessee finally scored six minutes into the game after starting the game 0-of-7. The good defense led to turnovers and rebounds, keeping Tennessee off the glass and allowing Iowa to get out and run. The Hawkeyes are at their best when they’re pushing the tempo.
Tennessee calmed down before the end of the first half, cutting the lead to 29-26 at the buzzer after McRae corralled a blocked shot and got his floater to go on the other end.
The Vols finally started to play the style they wanted, getting the ball inside and getting second-chance opportunities off offensive rebounds. The crowd of 11,534 roared when Josh Richardson (17 points, eight rebounds) got a thunderous slam to cut the Iowa lead to 47-44, and Tennessee showed a lot more energy overall.
“Just the nerves of the game – NCAA Tournament game – one and done so to speak,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said during the team's press conference. “Once those guys settled down at the end of the first and into the second half, they start to play basketball. But [Iowa’s] a very talented team. They get it out so quick and they get it up the court, not just the guards but the bigs do a great job of running ... I think once we forced those guys to start making individual plays, we feel like we had an advantage.”
The Volunteers took the lead 59-57 on an Antonio Barton three, but Roy Devyn Marble (seven points, 3-of-15 shooting) answered right back with an and-one to push it back to a one-point Iowa lead. The two teams ping-ponged the lead back and forth until there was under two minutes to play. Jeronne Maymon looked like he might have traveled in a scramble for the ball on the ground, but Tennessee was able to call timeout. Maymon then got a basket to fall with the foul to put the Vols up 63-62. He missed the free throw, but Tennessee got the ball back out of bounds.
With less than a minute to play, Aaron White committed a silly foul about 30 feet away from the hoop to send Tennessee to the line. Jarnell Stokes missed the free throw, and Marble hit an off-balance shot that sent the game to overtime.
The bonus period saw a quick bucket and the foul from Stokes, just moments later McRae got in the lane for a basket to put Tennessee up 69-64. Iowa would only score one point in the entire overtime period.
For Iowa coach Fran McCaffery, just being on the sideline for his team's game against Tennessee had to be a relief. The Hawkeyes coach made it to Dayton hours before his team was set to tip off against the Volunteers after spending the morning in Iowa City to be there for his son Patrick’s surgery to remove a tumor from his thyroid.
“I got up at 5 a.m. and we had Patrick at the hospital at 6 [am]," McCaffery said after the game. "He’s getting prepped for surgery on his neck to remove a tumor and you’re talking about potential malignancy and things of that nature and you’re saying to yourself, 'wow it puts wins and losses in perspective.' Once he came out of surgery and he was in good shape, I talked with the physician. He was great. We felt really good. I got on a plane, and at that point my job was to focus on the game and be there in every way that I could be for my guys.”
There was a tremendous outpouring of support for McCaffery and his family and not just from Iowa fans. The #TeamPat hashtag was everywhere, the team wore “P-Mac” shirts before the team’s Big Ten tournament game against Northwestern, and the Iowa mascot wore a white t-shirt with #TeamPat written in black marker on Wednesday. The Volunteer players hugged the Iowa coach after the game.
The Hawkeyes could have been forgiven if they were a bit rattled or their minds were elsewhere heading into Wednesday night, but at the start of the game they were all business. The energy they brought at the start might not have been sustainable, and the roller coaster they've been on would be emotionally draining for anyone.
“It was just an emotional day for not only [McCaffery] but his players,” Martin said. “Because again as players you take on your coach’s identity. Coach doing through something, it’s a family, a tough thing to deal. And those guys came out, you saw the adrenaline and emotion that they played with in the first half. I told the guys: We’ve got to lock in, tighten the screws because they’ll come out with energy and passion.”