Lamonte Turner had been in this position before. He remembered the pain of falling drastically short of Tennessee’s goal of a national championship a year ago.
As Sunday’s matchup with Iowa neared its close, it appeared the Vols were headed towards another gut-wrenching upset. Only this time, their veteran poise proved to be enough.
Despite surrendering a 25-point lead in the second half, Tennessee found a way to hang on in overtime to advance to its first Sweet 16 appearance since 2014, a reality that Turner is not taking for granted.
“It feels great, feels great just knowing we get to play another weekend and get another chance to compete,” Turner said. “That’s what we want and that was part of our plan all along.”
The last time the Vols advanced past the round of 32, Rick Barnes was coaching at Texas and Admiral Schofield was a junior at Zion-Benton Township High School, dreaming of playing on this stage.
Fast forward to today and the two are just a pair of wins away from accomplishing a feat Tennessee basketball has yet to experience.
They certainly didn’t make it easy, but that’s an aspect of the game that the Vols have come to accept as a commonality.
“One of the things we always say is that it doesn’t have to be perfect because basketball is never perfect,” Schofield said. “Most of the time that’s how a game goes.”
Red-hot from the opening tip, Schofield was in a comfort zone in the first half, notching 17 points on 6 of 9 shooting. He would score just two points following the intermission, but it was his off-the-court contributions that stood above the rest.
Not only did the senior guard hold himself out of the game during the extra period, but Schofield was effectively coaching the team from the sideline.
On several instances, it was Schofield, not Barnes, in the coach’s box shouting instructions. When he wasn’t close to the court, he was the first to greet his teammates in the huddle and one of the last voices they heard when it broke.
Barnes, who coached future NBA stars Kevin Durant and LaMarcus Aldridge at Texas, had yet to have a player of Schofield’s caliber take that initiative. It’s that willingness to sacrifice for the better of the team that makes him stand out from the crowd.
“I really respect and admire him for that, he was watching the game and knew they’d go at him with four fouls,” Barnes said. “You admire a player that’s willing to do that. He stayed engaged and that’s what you want to see.”
While that may have been the first thing on Barnes’ mind when he walked into the locker room following Sunday’s conclusion, it definitely wasn’t the last.
With his game suit drenched in water from the countless plastic bottles that were poured over him, Barnes wiped off his face, slicked his hair back and had but one parting message for his players before heading to the podium.
“All I can say is, Sweet 16 baby!” Barnes said with a smile.
What a difference a year makes. The Vols were in tears a year ago as they sat in the locker room in Dallas, wondering how they let what looked like a sure victory slip through their fingers.
Jordan Bowden kept a towel over his head. Jordan Bone courageously fought through the agony as he composed himself to address the media. In the end, it was no use. Tennessee is a team that wears its heart on its sleeve in both victory and defeat.
The painful memories that drove the Vols all season ended up being their greatest weapon in Columbus. They’d been in that situation before and experienced a sting that the Hawkeyes had yet to suffer.
“We weren’t panicking ... this is what we’ve worked for, this is what we push each other for,” Bowden said. “Just competing every day in practice to be here.”
As Tennessee prepares to face third-seeded Purdue in Louisville on Thursday, it will once again be faced with continuous questions regarding its status as a legit championship contender.
Looking to take advantage of the opportunity in front of them, the Vols will have a chance to write a new chapter in college basketball history — an opportunity they are not looking to waste.
“I would say the biggest thing is we’re more appreciative for the fact that we had another opportunity to play in a game like this,” Schofield said. “To be back here and be on the other side of it, it feels great and we won’t take that for granted.”