Heartbreaking finish gives Tennessee motivation for future
Tennessee plans to use the heartbreaking finish to its surprisingly successful season as motivation for a deeper NCAA Tournament run next year.
After being picked to finish 13th out of 14 teams in the Southeastern Conference , Tennessee won a share of the league’s regular-season title and earned its first NCAA bid since 2014. Tennessee’s season ended Saturday when Clayton Custer’s jumper with 3.6 seconds remaining gave Loyola-Chicago a 63-62 second-round victory over the Volunteers.
“All we can do is build on it,” Tennessee forward Admiral Schofield said. “We got here. We got a little bit of taste of what it’s like to be here. And if we want to go further, we’ve got to work a little harder.”
Tennessee figures to return the nucleus of a team that used its work ethic to emerge as one of the season’s biggest surprises.
The Vols (26-9) didn’t have a single player rated as a top-125 prospect according to composite rankings of recruiting services compiled by 247Sports , yet they matched the third-highest win total in program history and earned a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Their loss to 11th-seeded Loyola was just about the only time Tennessee didn’t meet expectations all season.
A team that had stayed remarkably healthy all season got some bad luck at the wrong time when a hip injury prevented 6-foot-11 forward Kyle Alexander from playing against Loyola. Without Alexander in Tennessee’s lineup, Loyola became just the fifth team to shoot 50 percent or better against the Vols this season.
Tennessee showed the tenacity that exemplified its season even in defeat, as the Vols went on an 8-0 run to take the lead in the final minute before Custer hit his big shot.
“They’re crushed,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said afterward. “We all are. But, I told them, ‘Hey, I’m glad it hurts a little bit,’ because I’ve had some teams (that) you wonder if it hurt deep enough. I told them once we step back and decompress from all of it, we’ve done a lot, more than certainly what other people thought.
“As a group, these guys felt they could win, and they’re going to look back on it in a couple weeks and realize that it was a special year. But it also puts us in a different position.”
Indeed, Tennessee won’t be able to sneak up on anyone next season.
The only senior on Tennessee’s roster this year was reserve guard James Daniel III, who averaged 5.6 points and 19.7 minutes. The list of players expected to return includes sophomore forward Grant Williams, the SEC coaches’ choice as the league’s player of the year . Schofield also should be back after delivering a late-season surge that showed his star potential.
That puts Tennessee in an unfamiliar role.
In each of Barnes’ first three years at Tennessee, the SEC media have picked the Vols to finish either 12th or 13th in the conference. Tennessee heads into next season as a legitimate contender to win a second straight league championship.
“We did a good job this year when it comes to putting kind of Tennessee back on the map,” Williams said. “But it’s really about just coming back next year and being stronger because this team, we have almost everyone returning.”
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