'Stay calm, stay confident': Could a close first-round win help Tennessee against Duke?
ORLANDO — Tyreke Key hit a three with 12 minutes left Thursday night, extending Tennessee’s lead over Louisiana to 18 points in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. The Vols were seemingly coasting toward the second round and a meeting with Duke.
Then Louisiana came to life with 13 straight points over the next four minutes, 31 seconds. That quickly, it was back to a two-possession game with the season on the line.
“Stay calm, stay confident,” sophomore wing Jahmai Mashack said Friday of Tennessee’s mindset in the moment. “We’ve been through moments like this where teams make runs. We’ve made runs.
“It’s all going to come down to execution at the end of the day. Staying calm, staying poised and doing what we practice.”
A Mashack jumper with 4:57 left got the Tennessee lead back to nine, but free throws were needed from Josiah-Jordan James and Julian Phillips in the final 20 seconds to hold off Louisiana in the 58-55 win.
“We would have liked to have kept the lead that we had,” James said, “but it shows that we’ve learned from games in the past where we have given up big leads and ultimately lost the game. So we held our composure.
“We did a good job of staying even keeled throughout the game and ultimately got the job done. So I think it’ll play to our advantage moving forward.”
Vols looking to advance to Sweet Sixteen for the second time under Rick Barnes
Now the fourth-seeded Vols (24-10) face No. 5-seed Duke (27-8) on Saturday (2:40 p.m. Eastern Time, CBS) at Amway Center in the East Region’s second round, with a spot in the Sweet Sixteen on the line.
“There are a lot of close games in March,” Mashack said, “and there are a lot of great teams. I think getting that close game in the first game is going to help us in a lot of ways.”
A close game in the first round has helped Tennessee in the past in the NCAA Tournament. The last four Sweet Sixteen runs made by the Vols — five of the last six, dating back to 2000 — started with a too-close-for-comfort game in the round of 64.
Tennessee had to hold off 15th-seeded Colgate in 2019, 77-70, after giving up a 16-point lead. The Vols led Iowa by 21 at halftime in the second round but had to punch their ticket to the Sweet Sixteen in overtime, beating the Hawkeyes 83-77 to advance
The Sweet Sixteen in 2014 started with a rally from down 12 to beat Iowa in overtime in the First Four in Dayton. Tennessee then beat UMass by 19 in the round of 64 and Mercer by 20 to advance to the round of sixteen.
Before getting to the Elite Eight in 2010 — the only Elite Eight appearance in program history — Tennessee had to survive San Diego State in the first round, 62-59. Tennessee then beat 14th-seeded Ohio by 14 in the second round and beat Ohio State 76-73 in the Sweet Sixteen.
Tennessee beat American 72-57 on the way to the Sweet Sixteen in 2008, but the lead was just 53-51 with 5:45 left in the first round before the Vols pulled away. The Sweet Sixteen path in 2017 started with a 121-86 win over Long Beach State.
Tennessee was a No. 4 seed in 2000 and beat No. 13 Louisiana 63-58 in the first round before beating No. 5 UConn 65-51 in the second round.
In 2018, Tennessee beat Wright State 73-47 in the first round, only to lose 63-63 to 11th-seeded Loyola-Chicago in the second round.
A year ago, the Vols beat Longwood 88-56 — its eighth straight win and 13th win over its last 14 games — after going 14-for-24 from the 3-point line and shooting 60.0 percent from the field. Two days later, the Vols were out of the tournament after a 76-68 loss to Michigan in the second round, going just 2-for-18 from the 3-point line in the season-ending loss.
“A year ago, it was kind of the opposite,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “We played, came out, played really well (against Longwood), then went up against obviously a tougher opponent.”
Up Next: No. 4 Tennessee vs. No. 5 Duke, Saturday, 2:40 p.m. Eastern Time, CBS
Now Duke enters as the red-hot team while Tennessee is still trying to find the team it was in January.
Duke has won 10 in a row and 13 of its last 15 after beating Oral Roberts 74-51 in the first round. The Blue Devils went 7-6 over a 13-game span from December 20 to February 11, before righting the ship and going on the run down the stretch.
“The momentum is great because you’ve won,” first-year Duke head coach Jon Scheyer said on Friday, but I also — I think you have to be careful to think that it translates. You have to go make it happen. You can’t assume it will. For us, I’m really proud of the fact that we haven’t assumed anything just because of the winning streak we’ve had or the basketball that we’ve played this last stretch.
“We have to continue to go make it happen, play with an edge, play with a hunger, and that’s what’s made us really special, the fact that we do that every day.”
The Vols, on the other hand, are 6-7 over their last 13 games, after starting the season 18-3 and climbing to No. 2 in the rankings after the 82-71 win over Texas on January 21 at Thompson-Boling Arena.
“What we’ve gone through in our league the last month,” Barnes said, “I think, has helped us win a game like last night.”
In fact, had Tennessee not struggled over the last few weeks, Barnes wasn’t sure how his Vols would’ve handled the heat being put on by Louisiana.
“Because it seems like every game for the last month has been a one- or two-possession game coming down the stretch,” Barnes said. “And you certainly hope this time of year that all that’s going to come back to help you when you need it most.”
The only question is if it will help Saturday afternoon against Duke. There’s no adversity the Blue Devils could throw at Tennessee that the Vols haven’t seen so far, including two days ago in the first round.
“We’ve dealt with it so much throughout the year,” Mashack said. “It’s just happened so much for us. We kind of know what to expect, we know what to do, we know how to prepare ourselves in the moment.”