Rexrode: Vols saves the worst for the finale in a Sweet 16 flop against FAU

NEW YORK — Nobody who likes Tennessee and lets the fantasy run after that win over Duke wants to hear that now, but Florida Atlantic deserved the 62-55 win they beat the Vols on Thursday at Madison Square Garden — well-deserving of a spot in the Elite Eight, a place that was He is supposed to go to the Vols for the second time in their history.

The Owls are now 34-3. They beat Florida, they were dominant in a very strong Conference USA at the top — see North Texas and UAB beat Oklahoma State and Vanderbilt, respectively, in the NIT — and this is a top 25 team in both actual standings and profile metrics. It is the team’s 17th-most effective field goal percentage (55.6 percent entering the game), with a skilled 7-foot player, all-around shooters, strong defensive and rebounding numbers and the most points scored (37.6 per game) in the nation.

Perhaps most importantly, Dusty Mae’s team is highly confident in close matches. The ninth seed came out in the Eastern Province on Thursday with a record of 10-1 in games decided by five points or less. The 66-65 victory over Memphis in the first round seemed like a loss more than once. So when the No. 4 seed (25-11) led through halftime and six with 12:07 to play, the Owls didn’t panic. They will cause a panic soon enough.

That doesn’t add to their record in that category, but the disparity in balance between these teams as the game tipped 18-2, then settled into the Vols chasing the Owls, was staggering.

“They weren’t as locked in as we wanted them to be, and we expected them to be,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said of his players, referring to the annoying body language he detected when things started to go wrong. “But it’s a big stage.”

Tyreke Key (4), Jahmai Mashack (15) and Olivier Nkamhoua stand on the court after Tennessee’s loss to FAU. (Brad Penner/USA Today)

The tip of the cap is suitable. But this is the application of both hands on either side of the head for a Vols fan. Because this was a rare and precious opportunity to get into what Tennessee men’s basketball was all about once and for all. The victory would have set up a winnable game against No. 3-ranked Kansas State, which beat No. 7-ranked Michigan State in the other game here on Thursday — by an overtime score of 98-93 — to get to where Vols has never been. Instead, it will be FAU against Kansas State for a trip to the Final Four in Houston.

And this was not just an implementation of owls. This was a breakdown of folders. aggressively. In a haze of stagnation and missed shots. once again. No scene was more fitting than the last, the Vols are down seven with 39 seconds remaining, needing a quick bucket to attempt a desperately late run. Santiago Viscovi fumbled a three-pointer, Foles’ rebound, Josiah Jordan James fumbled a three-pointer, Foles’ rebound, and Olivier Nkamhua fumbled a three-pointer, out of bounds Florida Atlantic.

game over. But of course, we had to do a lengthy review to make sure it was, in fact, a Tennessee ball. Don’t stare into space. The pholls huddled around each other, looking down on the court, some fighting tears. Barnes started talking to his team in what seemed like a relaxed post-game session. Finally, they managed to end an agonizing night by holding the ball and letting the final seconds run out.

He then said many times after the match that he was proud of his team. Also, when asked about seniors Vescovi, James, Nkamhua, Trekky Key, and Aros Blavsic going together to 14 for 50 from the floor, Barnes said, “It’s tough.”

said James, who had 10 points and six rebounds in what could be his last game for UT. “I mean, even getting this far is a blessing. … I think if you guys or anyone outside the locker room knew everything we’ve been through, they’d be proud of us.”

This team hasn’t been this healthy since Feb. 8, and after the Vols pulled off a stunning all-around effort to upset Duke in the second round — thanks in large part to Nakamua’s 27-point blast — it once again looked like a team seriously missing its base. Zakai Ziegler made the trip back home to New York, cruising around on a scooter, protecting his surgically repaired knee.

The Vols needed him desperately on this night when things started to go wrong, as they have in their losses to Auburn and Missouri since Ziegler tore his ACL on Feb. 28. Although the only guy who was still doing what Barnes wanted to do against FAU, rim, was the sophomore who basically took over the primary point guard duties, Jahmai Mashack.

Mashack’s layup lead put his team up 39-33 with 12:51 left. After the UT stopped, he darted down the aisle, reached for his spot, turned around, shot and just missed. And not much good happened to UT again until the game completely flipped. The younger Owls had 12 offensive rebounds, including some critical runs from the Vols late storming, to finish with a 40-36 advantage overall.

As the Tennessee offense shifted to less movement and created less space, the Owls found more driving lanes and ways to get the Vols to turn on the defense. They simply took over the game.

“They’ve got a bit of a breakaway, they feel good and I mean they’re a really good shooting team,” Barnes said. “They shoot at it. But the counter-attack was great. We usually don’t do that, but we did it today.”

So Barnes’ second progression to the second weekend of this tournament as a coach since 2008 could not get him back to his first provincial final since that same year. But this team’s Sweet 16, with no real guard on the floor, is a hit.

The guess here is that the seniors are all gone, with the next season’s starting quarterbacks of Ziegler, Machach, Jonas Aidoo and Tobei Awaka, though freshman Julian Phillips – predicted by some as a first-round pick – could also return if that doesn’t turn out to be Safe drop. He hasn’t looked like an NBA player lately and went scoreless, missing a shot, with a rebound in 12 minutes on Thursday. He was also dealing with a hip injury. As a sophomore, Phillips could be a focal point for a team that badly needs more leadership and creativity offensively.

Another strong recruiting class, led by 6-11 center JP Estrella, is on the way. It is possible that the portal could also be exploited. The Vols should be ranked in the preseason and among the best teams in the SEC next season. It was just the fourth UT team to reach 25 wins under Barnes—there were three in program history before him—and it could be looking at another team.

That could mean another NCAA tournament, and that shouldn’t be taken for granted in Knoxville. All but 16 college basketball programs are the envy of this weekend. It’s just that, when you get a chance like the Vols had in New York, given the very good teams that intercept the Final Four but nobody beats, you have to do better than 16 points in the most important 12 minutes of your season.

(Top photo of FAU’s Michael Forrest driving the basket against Josiah-Jordan James: Ben Solomon/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)


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