After playing from behind for 37 minutes, the Vols got their act together just in time to catch Iowa at the end of regulation, then hammer the Hawkeyes 14-1 in overtime to notch a 78-65 victory here Wednesday in first-round NCAA Tournament action.
The victory sends the 11th-seeded Vols (22-11) against sixth-seeded UMass in Midwest Regional second-round action Friday at Raleigh.
Although Jordan McRae (20) and Jarnell Stokes (18) scored more points, the Vols' savior on this night clearly was Josh Richardson. The junior wing scored all 17 of his points in the second half to spark Tennessee's comeback. He also put the clamps on Iowa standout Roy Devyn Marble, limiting him to 3-of-15 shooting from the field, including 0 of 6 from 3-point range.
Although Iowa dominated the game's first 30 minutes, Tennessee's defensive pressure appeared to wear down the Hawkeyes. This enabled Tennessee to rally in the final 10 minutes of regulation, then dominate the overtime.
"We did wear them down," McRae said. "They were subbing a lot of guys throughout the game but we made them work so hard for their points. Even when they did score they had to work really, really hard for them."
To say this was an uphill struggle for the Vols would be putting it mildly. Iowa scored the game's first 8 points with such ease that Vol coach Cuonzo Martin called an emergency timeout. The Vols needed six minutes to score their first basket and appeared on the verge of a blowout loss when Iowa's lead swelled to 16-4.
McRae scored a 3-pointer and a traditional three-point play at this juncture, trimming the gap to 16-10 and taking some of Iowa's momentum … temporarily.
The Hawkeyes eased ahead 29-19 only to see the Vols close the half with a 7-0 run. Armani Moore hit an 8-footer from the lane, then Jeronne Maymon made two free throws. Stokes hit a free throw, then McRae scooped up a loose ball and hit a 10-footer from in front at the first-half buzzer, pulling the Vols within 29-26.
"We needed something like that going into halftime because our first half was terrible," senior post Jeronne Maymon said. "We shot 10 percent (1 of 10) from 3 and about 25 percent from the field. It was just really bad."
Richardson, who went 0 for 5 from the field in the first half, admitted feeling some nerves early.
"I was just trying to go too fast," he said. "Once I calmed down, it came together."
Shortly before play resumed he got a piece of helpful advice from a Vol assistant As Richardson recalled: "As we were walking on the court for the start of the second half Kent Williams said, ‘Just relax, play and shoot.' I was like, ‘All right!'"
The motivation worked. Richardson scored 15 of Tennessee's first 23 points of the second half, almost single-handedly keeping the Vols in the game.
"Once he got going there was no stopping him," Maymon said. "We was giving him the ball every time down."
Richardson responded with his most electric half of the year. He drained jumpers. He made dazzling drives. He even rammed home a thunderous dunk. After being a dud in the first half, he was a stud in the second half. One teammate thinks he knows why.
"Josh at one point was the only starter in there, so he knew what he had to do," McRae said. "He went to work. He got a big dunk, and anytime you get a dunk like that it gets you going. Then he started hitting shots."
Although a Richardson 3-pointer produced a 37-all tie five minutes into the second half, Tennessee didn't take its first lead of the game until Antonio Barton nailed a 3 that put the Vols on top 59-57 with 3:07 remaining. The Vols led 64-62 late but Marble drained an 18-footer to tie the score with 17.9 seconds left, despite good defensive coverage by Richardson.
"I was guarding him," Richardson said with a frown. "I was like, ‘If you can hit that, then you deserve it. Good shot.'"
Although Iowa hit the shot that forced the overtime, Tennessee grabbed the momentum in the opening seconds of the extra period. Stokes muscled home a layup, then hit a free throw to complete a three-point play that seemed to energize the Vols and demoralize the Hawkeyes.
"That was big-time," Richardson said. "It was more than just three points. It was a big momentum play for us."
Richardson then assisted McRae for a layup that widened the gap to 69-64 and seemed to drain the Hawkeyes, who went 0 for 7 from the field in the extra period.