DAYTON, Ohio — Tennessee didn't need to be reminded of its early-season gaffes to Texas A&M again, much less the Volunteers' growing reputation of folding late in close games.
But for head coach Cuonzo Martin, it worked.
A season hung in the balance just before overtime of the Volunteers' NCAA tournament play-in game against Iowa. Martin was desperate for his Vols to avoid the fate they suffered in their first, and only other, extra period of the season—a tough, last-second loss to the Aggies on Feb. 22.
"We definitely understood that reputation," UT forward Jarnell Stokes said. "Coach Martin reminded us that at the Texas A&M game, it was a somewhat similar way of how we went into overtime (Wednesday).
"I think that kind of gave us the fire."
The Vols outscored Iowa 14-1 in the overtime period, beating the Hawkeyes 78-65 in a thriller at UD Arena to advance to face No. 6-seed Massachusetts in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Jordan McRae led all scorers with 20 points, but missed a game-winning look at the regulation buzzer with the score tied at 64. That came after Iowa's Roy Devyn Marble hit a jumper with 18 seconds left to tie the game and eventually force overtime.
But when the clock rolled over into five minutes of free basketball, the Vols (22-12) owned every second of it.
Stokes, who finished with 18 points and 13 rebounds, started things off in overtime with a basket and foul. Then, the Vols held the Hawkeyes without a field goal while hitting 10 free throws in overtime alone.
"They've done a tremendous job as a unit," Martin said of his team, "bonding, competing, playing together, having fun. And it's just fun to watch. I'm so proud of their growth as young men."
It took virtually no time for the Vols to have their fight tested, however. Iowa started the game out on fire, scoring the game's first eight points and jumping out to a 16-4 lead.
But from that point on, Tennessee outscored the Hawkeyes 74-49.
Things didn't click for the Vols right after the Hawkeyes' hot start, however. UT couldn't find its groove from outside all half, going 1-of-10 from 3-point range in the first half and watching Iowa nail most of its open looks.
The Vols clawed, going on a 10-2 run to close the half and bringing it to within a possession. After trailing by as many as 12, UT was behind 29-26 at the half, leaving UT point guard Antonio Barton surprised.
"Yeah, we were kind of surprised," Barton said. "I mean, they jumped out on us. They gave us their best shot, and we didn't in that first half, and we were still down three."
But despite him and fellow starter Josh Richardson combining to miss all of their first 11 shots, they turned things around at the halftime break in a big way.
The senior Memphis transfer—the only Vol with meaningful NCAA tournament experience—and Richardson were key in the second-half emergence. The duo combined for 27 second-half points (Barton 10, Richardson 17) after being held scoreless in the first.
Barton, and the rest of the Vols, weren't about to go back to Knoxville.
"At halftime, we had that mentality," Barton said. "We told each other, 'we're not ready to go home.' We didn't want to go home, so we were just gonna come out and leave it out on the court."
It took some time for the Vols—namely the shooters—to get going. But they certainly did, trimming a game-long Iowa lead down, little by little, until a Barton 3-pointer with three minutes left gave UT its first lead of the game—59-57.
Even if the bright lights were a little too much for Tennessee—a team that, despite its seasoned roster boasts very little NCAA tournament experience—it got the job done in the end.
"You know, it's the first time we've been in the tournament for everybody in here except Antonio," McRae said of the early struggles. "So I mean, we were nervous about it. Everything's different. The lights are different. The ball is different."
Things were indeed different for the Vols, most notably their ability to close out a close game. For a team that has only notched two of its 22 wins by single digits, but has lost 11 of its 12 defeats by eight points or less, Tennessee has proven unable to put away opponents.
One game may not be enough change a trend that has permeated all season, but it did come in a do-or-die moment for the Vols.
And that, along with Wednesday's victory, has Stokes and the Vols expecting a jitter-less game Friday against Massachusetts.
"I think we got the first one under our belt, thank God that we were able to escape this win," Stokes said. "I don't think (the jitters) will be here next game."