ORLANDO, Fla. — If psychology hadn’t played a role in the NCAA tournament, Purdue would have taken it easy on Fairleigh Dickinson and settled for a 40-point win, and Furman-Virginia would not have happened this weekend at the Amway Center, and Xavier wouldn’t have needed a late charge to get past Kennesaw State.
And there is no St. Peter’s Basilica, no UMBC and so on and so on. If it hadn’t mattered, I don’t think we would have seen Tennessee senior guard Santiago Vescovi dance around on the balls of his feet just before the whistle blew to start the second half of Saturday’s game at Amway, smiling, an insider shared Joke with some authors in the press line covering the volumes. He looked like a player taking it easy in an NBA regular-season game in February. Not a guy whose team puts so much on his shoulders, whose opponents try to physically intimidate him, whose college career needed a stellar half of basketball against Duke to continue.
“I felt great,” Vescovi said later in that moment, standing in a locker room full of guys feeling a lot better after just beating Duke 65-52 to advance to the Sweet 16 and continue their story together and silence the doubters, haters, tweeters, Rick Barnes detractors and apparently even the odds makers.
Seconds after Vescovi appeared in the press row, the other senior guard leading that team, Josiah-Jordan James, dropped a 3-pointer from the top of the key to make it a nine, and Tennessee was eliminated. Free, relaxed, aggressive, focused and determined. The East Region Vols #4 (25-10) handled the #5 Blue Devils (27-9) because they are older and more experienced. Because role players played their part and more, with Olivier Nkamhoua going above and beyond, scoring 23 of his 27 points in the second half.
Because they took a perfect plan from Barnes and his associates and executed it. They brought Duke “in the mud,” as associate head coach Justin Gainey summoned them during Friday’s prep.
And because, just as Tennessee’s physicality was Duke’s enemy, psychology was Tennessee’s friend.
That had never been the case in nine previous NCAA games for that program under Barnes. UT should win them all. UT was expected to make runs. The Vols often played as if they felt the weight and burden of Barnes’ March history. They won just five, including Thursday’s shaky 58-55 triumph over 14th-seeded Louisiana. It was particularly evident a year ago in Indianapolis, in the same round, UT, a No. 3 seed with Final Four ingredients being edged 22-8 in the final seven minutes by No. 11 seed Michigan after she had held a six-point lead.
Vols’ elder forward Olivier Nkamhoua and his teammates got the job done defensively against Duke’s top scorer Kyle Filipowski, holding him to 13 points. (Matt Pendleton / USA Today)
Saturday’s lead was five with seven minutes remaining. From then on it was 14-6 volumes.
“It’s a different team,” Barnes said, and it was a very different situation. Playing against a red-hot team wearing the kit of perhaps the sport’s biggest brand and hearing all about not having a chance of winning tends to take the pressure off and increase resolve.
“We had a big bulletin board with talking heads, people who were experts in their field, talking about how Duke was a much more talented team, they were better than us,” James said. “We saw Vegas let them beat us even though we’re the higher seed… the money line or whatever you call it. I don’t know how the betting works but I think they had us minus 3. Or plus-3. So yes. Obviously people didn’t think we were going to win.”
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Had these folks given more thought to what the Vols have done this season in dealing with Alabama, Kansas and Texas, among other statements for a team that has had historical defensive efficiency numbers for most of the season, it might have been different. But Tennessee had lost seven of 13 games Saturday and starting point guard Zakai Zeigler to a cruciate ligament tear. Duke had won 10 straight, including the ACC tournament title.
“Everyone is entitled to their own opinion,” James said. “You just got it wrong with this one.”
Psychology will cease to be the Vols’ friend, at least to the same degree, on Thursday at New York’s Madison Square Garden against No. 9 seed Florida Atlantic or Fairleigh Dickinson, the No. 16 seed who is arguably the top- Seed defeating Purdue has greatest excitement in tournament history. Tennessee is expected to beat both of them and advance to the second Elite Eight in program history and then have a real shot at making the first Final Four.
But that win alone is huge and should wipe away a lot of effort and lawsuits no matter what happens in New York. Barnes’ other Tennessee team to get this far, the 2018-19 Grant Williams-led team, was a season-long Final Four favorite. It was not confirmed to squeak past number 7 Iowa in the second round. That team was largely dismissed when Zeigler went on a rout in Arkansas on February 28. This team has now achieved something.
The smile on Barnes’ face said so much as he walked out of the victorious dressing room to his press conference and said to a reporter waiting to walk in, “That was pretty good, wasn’t it?”
“There wasn’t anyone who went into this game for us today and didn’t help us,” Barnes said after taking his seat on the raised stage, and that was no exaggeration from a winning coach.
Uros Plavsic set the tone or threw the first handful of mud by tossing his 7-1, 265-pound, 24-year-old body around. He picked up two quick fouls, not ideal but physicality was established. Jonas Aidoo, the Durham, NC kid who grew up cheering for North Carolina and hated Duke, came on for Plavsic and immediately established his defensive presence. He was everywhere, much like Duke rookie Dereck Lively II on the Blue Devils’ defense. As Aidoo hurled Jacob Grandison at an unsuspecting tuba, he let out a torrent of loud words.
“A lot of bad words,” Aidoo said, and Duke must have muttered a few during the day.
Vescovi hit big shots and scored 14 points. James made crucial plays at both ends. Nkamhoua, the 6-9 senior whose offensive talents come and go like many aspects of this team, left the field. When Duke’s first-year coach, Jon Scheyer, went into a zone in the second half, switched towards Vescovi and aimed in part to protect guard Jeremy Roach and his four fouls, Nkamhoua found space in the center of the zone to fire on middle-range shots connect to.
Then he started hitting 3-pointers. Then he stuffed a miss from James home with one hand. Nkamhoua had 13 straight points, tied his career in high scoring and nearly tripled his average per game. UT’s lead grew from four to eleven during its acquisition. He also did the job defensively against Duke’s top scorer Kyle Filipowski (6/16, 13 points, an ugly cut under the eye). But then everyone did the job defensively for Tennessee. Duke had 33 points in the final 28 minutes of the game and hit his all-time low with an NCAA loss.
Nkamhoua scored 23 of his 27 second-half points, including that dunk. (Matt Pendleton / USA Today)
This was plan and execution in the symphony. Along with this dry-erase chalkboard with examples of disrespect to the Vols, Barnes showed his team a ton of film on Friday. He went through the maddening turnovers of the Louisiana game and added many scathing comments. Then, apart from the normal scouting reports on Duke, he showed the Vols what teams like Miami and NC State were doing to bully the young Blue Devils for the basket this season.
The Vols knew as well as Duke had played they had no real matchup problems, would trade everything and could physically affect the Blue Devils.
“Put them in the mud – they could drown in it,” Plavsic said.
“In the end, habits win out,” James said. “And we do that every day. We don’t think anyone can replicate what we do or do what we do on a daily basis.”
Duke had to overcome the knee injury suffered by starter Mark Mitchell on Friday, who tested it in warm-ups and was unable to walk. Of course, Tennessee had to overcome an egregious officiating error when Duke star guard Roach was called out for his fifth foul with 8:51 left and the officials changed it to Tyrese Proctor, even though Roach clearly committed the foul and Proctor made no contact.
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In the end, the better team that day was easy to spot. And then some of the players on that team let loose the victory.
Like Plavsic on how many people picked the Vols to lose: “You saw the pick show, you heard what they said about us. … They said we were going to lose in the first round. I don’t think that happened, does it?”
As James on the fans who left this team: “I mean, don’t try to switch now. Don’t try to come in and rejoice with us. We have everything we need now, we have the people we need. And you can stay on this side.”
Like Jahmai Mashack about those who slander Barnes: “It’s actually unbelievable how much criticism he gets for being such a great coach.”
And James on the same topic: “Every time people say such madness about how his record is in March, we take it as a disrespect to ourselves and to him.”
The passion in those comments was also evident in the performance. Barnes was proud of it, and should have been. It earned him one of his greatest wins in Tennessee. It was the 779th of his career and tied with Lou Henson of the Basketball Hall of Fame for 15th on the all-time list. It got him 27-26 in the NCAA tournament and to the Sweet 16 for the second time since 2008, which explains why there’s so much fodder to piss off his players.
Saturday’s win was the 779th in coach Rick Barnes’ career and one of his biggest in Tennessee. (Matt Pendleton / USA Today)
But this group has a real shot at doubling their Final Fours. The Vols all played well in their biggest win to date. They only had nine turnovers against another elite defense and demonstrated offensive wins as they adjust without Zeigler. It’s the other end of the floor that will be their ticket if they can get some of that Florida mud to Manhattan.
(Top photo of Tennessee Volunteers’ Uros Plavsic, left, celebrating a shot against Duke: Ben Solomon/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)