Tennessee tried their best to give away the biggest lead in NCAA tournament history, but their all-american Grant Williams wouldn’t let them.
Williams was responsible for a 9-2 burst to open overtime as the No. 2-seed Volunteers hung on to beat 10th-seeded Iowa, 83-77, to get to their first Sweet 16 since 2014. Tennessee pounded the ball into their best player on every possession they had in the extra period, and he responded with three buckets and a kick out to Jordan Bone, who buried a 25-foot three.
Williams finished with 19 points, seven boards, five assists, four steals and three blocks, putting together precisely the kind of all around performance that he has become famous, and it could not have come at a better time for Rick Barnes and company.
For the second straight game, the Vols jumped out to a huge first half lead before giving it all away. Against Colgate in the first round of the tournament, Tennessee led by as many as 15 points in the first half, but they allowed the Raiders to catch fire in the second half, eventually taking the lead before Admiral Schofield buried three straight corner threes to ice the win.
Sunday was the same story, just on steroids.
Tennessee jumped out to a 44-19 lead in the first half and took a 49-28 lead into the break before forgetting how to play basketball. Tyler Cook scored all 11 of his points in the second half, Tennessee turned the ball over 11 times after the break and the Hawkeye shooter finally found a bit of a rhythm, outscoring the Vols 43-22 in the second half to force overtime and come a possession away from landing the biggest comeback in the history of the NCAA tournament.
The record, for what it’s worth, came last season when Nevada erased a 22 point second half deficit in their second round upset of No. 2-seed Cincinnati.
The question now becomes the why.
This is a Tennessee team that has won an SEC regular season title. They have now won 57 games the last two seasons. They have a roster full of players that are veterans known for their toughness, both physical and mental. And there is something to be said for a team blowing a big lead, regrouping and find a way to win. That’s a good thing!
But they were bailed out by Grant Williams simply being by far the best basketball player on the floor on Sunday. They were bailed out by the fact that Colgate is Colgate and was playing without their best player on Friday. We have now reached a point in the tournament where the teams that they play are not going to let them get away with the silly, lazy and undisciplined mistakes that they have made in the last two games.
The second half on Sunday is a perfect example.
Half of Tennessee’s 10 second half turnovers were unforced and totally avoidable. Jordan Bone threw the ball to Iowa more than he threw it to his own team. After spending the first 20 minutes shoving the transition game down Iowa’s throat, the Vols took their foot off the gas and looked like they assumed that Iowa would roll over and die, which is silly because Iowa is only in the second round of the tournament because they erased a 12 point lead in a win over Cincinnati in the first round.
The Vols will advance to take on Purdue in Louisville in the Sweet 16. The Boilermakers are coming off of a blowout win over Villanova in the second round, one that reinforced the notion that this Purdue team, which does not look like a Sweet 16 team on paper, won a share of the regular season title in what has proven to be the toughest and deepest league in the sport.
They are not going to survive a second half meltdown against Matt Painter’s club.
So Rick Barnes better figure out what it is about the last two games that made his team play like they did.
Because they’ll be heading home sooner than he would like if he doesn’t.