DAYTON, Ohio – It took Tennessee every game of the regular season to squeeze into the NCAA tournament as one of the final at-large bids.
So it makes sense that it took the Vols more than regulation to advance past Iowa in the ‘First Four’ in Dayton on Wednesday night.
Sparked by a Jarnell Stokes bucket and made free throw on the first possession of the extra frame, the Vols (22-12) dominated overtime, outscoring the Hawkeyes 14-1 over the final five minutes in UD Arena. An exciting game that was back-and-forth for most of the evening ended anticlimactically with the Vols running out the final minutes with made free throws.
After struggling to get stops consistently all evening, the Vols didn't allow Iowa (20-13) to convert a single field goal in OT.
"We sat down on defense like we know how to play," said guard Josh Richardson. "We were giving them so many easy buckets in this game, we weren't playing defense like we know how to play. Once we finally locked in and sat down, it was good."
And with the defense finally clicking like it had over the last six games of the season, the Vols got the ball inside, drew fouls and took care of business at the free-throw line.
“We were making our free throws, we were getting to the paint and we were in the bonus the whole time [in overtime],” said forward Jeronne Maymon, who finished with nine points and seven rebounds. “Getting to the free-throw line was huge.”
Tennessee hit 10 of 11 from the charity stripe in overtime to wrap up an impressive 20-of-25 effort from the line for the evening.
The Vols erased an early 12-point deficit to storm back into contention against the Hawkeyes. Tennessee cut the deficit down to three points as the first half expired when Jordan McRae hit a floater with no time left on the clock to wrap up a 7-0 run for the Vols before the break.
“It was a big shot for us,” McRae said. “We were fighting to get back the whole time.”
And though UT was able to tie it at multiple points in the second half, the Vols had a hard time getting over the hump. Iowa led by as many as five in the final 10 minutes, but UT finally took its first lead at 59-57 when point guard Antonio Barton hit a 3-pointer at the 3:07 mark of the second half.
Barton’s shot gave them that lead. But it was guard Josh Richardson, who came into Wednesday in a shooting slump, who kept the Vols afloat in the second half. Richardson, who finished with 17 points, had a mid-second half stretch where he scored nine of UT’s 10 points, highlighted by an emphatic one-handed dunk.
“I just knew we needed a spark,” said Richardson. “I kind of calmed down and they were giving me spots where I had shots and I wasn’t taking them in the first half, but I was playing my game in the second half.”
Though McRae led the Vols with 20 points, Richardson was Tennessee’s most valuable player, not only for his timely scoring, but also for his defense on Iowa’s leading scorer, Devyn Marble.
Marble, who came into the contest averaging 17.3 points per game, scored just seven points on 3 of 15 shooting, thanks in large part to Richardson, who guarded him on virtually every possession he was in the game for.
“Josh accepted the challenge,” said Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin. “The last five or six games, probably the last seven, he turned into an elite defender. Marble is going to be playing in the NBA, no doubt, with his size his athleticism and skill level.”
The lead bounced back and forth over the final minutes of regulation. Stokes had an opportunity to put the Vols up three with 25 seconds remaining, but missed his second free throw. That’s when Marble hit one of his three field goals of the night on the other end, tying the game at 64.
McRae then took the ball down the court with 20 seconds remaining, called for a clear out and pulled up for a tough mid-range jumper as time expired. The shot rimmed out, sending the teams to overtime tied at 64.
Tennessee advances to play No. 6 UMass in Raleigh, N.C., on Friday afternoon at 2:45 p.m. ET.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga