Tennesee showed poise in the midst of a potential 25-point meltdown to reach the Sweet 16 for the first time in five years.

By Dan Greene
March 24, 2019

COLUMBUS, Ohio— Lamonté Turner had in the previous hour approached the outer margins on the spectrum of the NCAA tournament’s roles, from would-be goat—however inappropriately cast by a questionable whistle—to would-be hero, on the merits of a go-ahead bucket that pried open a late lead that was soon erased. Now the junior Tennessee guard sat in the cramped quarters of his locker room, playing the role of host to a semicircular horde of gathered reporters, the braces on his teeth gleaming in the TV cameras’ light, and was asked to describe how that range of emotions had settled into whatever he was feeling now. 

“It feels...” Turner started, searching for an answer. “It feels sweet,” he said. “That’s a great way to describe it.”

It is a fitting one, given what the second-seeded Volunteers had just done, which was beat Iowa 83–77 in overtime to advance to the Sweet 16, a first for Tennessee’s program since five years, two coaches, and an entire roster ago. It was also one of many ways someone might feel about what the Vols had just not done: tie the record for the largest-ever blown lead in an NCAA tournament loss by falling to the Hawkeyes after piddling away a 25-point first-half advantage. In an event that through its first three days had seen all of its top teams hold serve, Tennessee came perilously close to being the first contender sent home, and to doing so in historic flames. 

It might have dodged that ignominious mark earlier had it not been for a confusing and debatable shooting foul called against Turner with 2:39 to play and Tennessee leading by three. As Iowa guard Jordan Bohannon launched a three-pointer, Turner knocked the ball loose and broke the other way, seemingly triggering a fast break that could have put the Vols ahead by five. But a moment later, a whistle blew and an official signaled for play to stop, though not for why. After two referees briefly conferred, a shooting foul was signaled against Turner, who appeared perplexed as he pleaded his case that no infraction had occurred. 

“I ain’t gonna really comment on that call,” Turner said later. “But I got all ball.” After Bohannon sank the resulting trio of free throws, the once-lopsided game was tied for the first time since it was scoreless in its first 14 seconds.

For so much of the game such a feat seemed to verge on impossibility. Tennessee had taken control almost immediately, scoring 20 points in the game’s opening six minutes and, 10 minutes later, leading by 25. Admiral Schofield was burying jumpers. Kyle Alexander was owning the glass. The Vols’ defense was picking up Iowa’s offense at three-quarters court and forcing it to work practically side to side, disrupting its entire flow. Hawkeyes star Tyler Cook hadn’t scored a point. The team was missing bunnies. At halftime, Tennessee led 49–28. The rest seemed a formality.

But the game changed in its second half. Within the first four minutes, Schofield and SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams were both on Tennessee’s bench with three fouls. The Hawkeyes responded by attacking inside. Cook came alive, scoring 11 points in less than seven minutes. The Vols, so aggressive and controlling in the first 20 minutes, were knocked onto their heels, coughing the ball up without much provocation. “We let the momentum of the game mess with our offense,” Turner said. “We probably got a little uptight.”

Tennessee was fighting its own history too. A year ago, as a No. 3 seed, it had been an early victim of Cinderella 11-seed Loyola Chicago, falling to the upstart Ramblings in this same second round. As in that game in Dallas a year ago, the Vols sensed their surroundings in Columbus on Sunday turn against them. Other than their own orange-clad faithful, it seemed the rest of those in the arena—North Carolina and Washington fans there for the following game and neutral locals—began pulling for the Hawkeyes and their furious rally.  “Everybody wants to see the team that came back,” said Turner. “I can’t really blame them. But it was a tough environment to play in.”

That had the effect of distortion: even before Iowa had completed its comeback, it felt like it had. “I remember being up 13,” said Turner, “and it felt like we were down 12.” For much of the second the teams traded buckets as the Vols’ lead hovered around nine points, until a surge of scoring from Bohannon and sophomore big man Luka Garza put Iowa within a single possession of tying the game—which it did on Bohannon’s free throws after Turner’s foul.

“Honestly,” Turner said afterward, “I was thinking, ‘Dang, we just gave up a 25-point lead. That’s gotta be a record or something.’”

Turner broke that tie himself on the other end, pulling up for a three-pointer that put Tennessee back ahead by as many points as the game neared its two-minute mark. He nearly got a chance for a game-winner as regulation ended, as Vols coach Rick Barnes drew up a play for Turner to shoot off a ball screen, only for the ball to wind up with teammate Jordan Bone, whose shot missed. But in the huddle before overtime began, Turner provided his team a more intangible lift. 

“I just told our team we’re a better team, no ifs, ands, or buts about it,” Turner said. “We just had to settle down. The lead we gave up doesn’t really matter right now. We’ve got five minutes to play.”

Within a minute of overtime the Vols would return to permanent control. They fed Williams, who scored himself and then passed out of a double-team in the post to find Bone for a three. With Schofield, regulation’s leading scorer with 19 points, curiously on the bench—to a man, Tennessee players explained later that Schofield, who had four fouls and felt he could not defend aggressively, had suggested that Alexander play in his place—Williams took over. After Bone’s bucket, Iowa was never again within a single basket.

Just before the final buzzer sounded, when Bohannon’s last-ditch three-point attempt missed, it was Turner who corralled the long rebound and commenced the Vols’ celebration by streaking upcourt towards their bench. Back in the locker room, having ducked a dubious loss and instead secured the current roster’s greatest win, the Volunteers indulged in a reliable tournament standard, dousing their coach with water when he entered the doorway. “They got me really good,” said Barnes, who noted that the celebration had ruined his hair. “But if it makes them happy, I can deal with it, you know.” On his way to the post-game press conference, Williams tapped a local reporter on the shoulder. “Sorry we made you guys panic,” he said.

Down the hallway, Turner sat on his locker more wired than relieved, already rearing for Thursday’s matchup with Purdue. “I’m just ready to get back to work, to move on and advance,” he said. “We get to go to school for a day, catch up on homework and stuff like that. Being a guy that graduates in May, I’ve got stuff to catch up on. I’ve gotta actually go back and do work.” Beyond that, the horizon looked pretty sweet.

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