Admiral Schofield is no stranger to playing on basketball’s biggest stages. In fact, he’s grown quite accustomed to it. Look no further than Tennessee’s opening round matchup with the 15th-seeded Colgate Raiders in the NCAA Tournament.
Listed at 6-foot-6, 241 pounds, the charismatic Schofield has never been one to shy away from the brightest moments.
When the Vols traveled to the desert to take on top-ranked Gonzaga, he single-handedly bludgeoned the Zags to the tune of 30 points on 6 of 10 shooting from beyond the arc, hitting the go-ahead three with just 22.1 seconds to play.
It’s a facet that Rick Barnes and his teammates have become quite familiar with and they were dealt a fresh dose of that on Friday. If emotions can describe their words, they were anything but surprised.
“With Admiral, he’s been in many games this year where he’s knocked down tough shots, big-time shots in a critical moment,” Jordan Bone said. “And he did that today.”
Those big-time shots came by way of the 3-point line during a time in which Tennessee found itself on the verge of what would have been a monumental - and heartbreaking - upset to end its season.
Not this time.
With just minutes remaining in the second half, Schofield was 0 of 4 from 3-point range. He’d struggled mightily with his shot after recording two early baskets that helped the Vols take a 9-0 lead.
So what did the senior guard decide to do when he was given space in the corner? Trust his instincts. Rising up in one fluent motion, the ball rolled off of Schofield’s fingertips and cleanly snapped the net.
And then it happened again. No. 5 did not blink, and in typical fashion, diverted all of the credit to his teammates following the final buzzer.
“We have experience in those situations and we understand what it takes to win in those situations,” Schofield said. “It’s just defense, getting stops, getting rebounds and taking smart shots.”
While his track record of late will suggest otherwise, crunch-time situations weren’t Schofield’s greatest strength. It wasn’t mental toughness that evaded him, however.
A sporadic shooter from distance during his early years, Schofield’s biggest lesson didn’t come in practice or from a sit-down conversation with Rick Barnes - it came in front of the bright lights and dozens of cameras.
Down by two with just under 10 seconds remaining on the clock against Georgia in the 2017 SEC Tournament, the Vols turned to the then-sophomore guard who found himself open on the wing with a clean look. He left it short.
From that point on, Schofield made it a priority to develop his leadership skills. That in turn assisted in him becoming one of college basketball’s most effective closers.
“I think the biggest moment that helped me as far as leadership would be the Georgia game two years ago, missing a game-winning opportunity for my team,” Schofield said. “Just seeing the disappointment on our faces when we knew our backs were against the wall.”
Not only would Schofield begin to knock down big shots on a consistent basis, his overall game grew with it. His scoring average has increased every season since then, along with his rebounding, assists and field goal percentage.
Despite that, it’s his ability to rally his teammates and be a calming force on the offensive end in crunch time that has benefited the Vols the most. It’s the time he put in to improve his game that has his head coach raving.
“What I think of him is the time he puts in the gym, he's in there working and working and working,” Barnes said. “He's worked as hard as any player I've seen from the time that he started.”
It’s that work ethic and that attitude that has Barnes constantly looking Schofield’s way when Tennessee is in need of a spark. His combination of size and athleticism doesn’t hurt either.
As the end of his career winds down, the lasting impression for Barnes and much of Knoxville will be a young athlete from Illinois that came in, worked hard and did everything right.
That’s the reason Tennessee continues to lean on Schofield and will miss his presence both on and off the court for years to come.
“He's put so much time in working on his shot,” Barnes said. “And he's one of those guys, when it leaves his hand and he has his feet set, you think it's going in.”