The bright lights of the NCAA tournament almost blinded Tennessee beyond recovery as its improbable Sweet 16 run was in its infancy.

Missing their first eight shots, the Volunteers allowed Iowa to jump out to a 16-4 lead in last Wednesday's play-in game.

Desperately needing momentum heading into a TV timeout, Jordan McRae nailed an ill-advised 3-pointer. Iowa ran down, missed a three of its own, and McRae finished for a layup on the other end.

Down seven points that felt more like 20, the Vols' fate at that point was headed in one of two directions: fail to bounce back from a horrible start and spend the rest of Spring Break in Knoxville or gut out a victory and see what happens in Raleigh, N.C.

The Vols have outscored their last three opponents 238-179 — a 59-point difference — since that timeout.

"I do think it was nerves the first 10 minutes of that game," coach Cuonzo Martin said Tuesday. "Just, 'Man, we are in the NCAA tournament.' We didn't flow right defensively. We lost assignments.

"And then once we settled down and especially got that thing in overtime, we started to play well and we've been playing well ever since."

Ever since, the Vols have "stone-cold stunned" everyone in sight as one of the main surprises of the Big Dance. Their laid-back approach led to a 19-point win over six-seed Massachusetts before they crushed 14-seed Mercer.

But it wasn't getting used to the big stage that aided the Vols, at least for Jarnell Stokes. The 6-foot-8 junior forward thought UT just got back to its regular style of defensive intensity and energy.

"I wouldn't say the way it was," Stokes said, "I feel like we got back to playing the way we play. We got a lot of key stops, the energy was there and the guys hit shots, and it basically led into the next game. We came out and hit shots against UMass, also."

The Vols seemed to feed off that energy to rush out to an early lead over UMass that they held throughout; it only improved in the Round of 32. They held a 15-point halftime lead over Mercer, boasting a gaudy rebounding advantage that saw the Vols to a 20-point win.

All of this dominance over the first weekend of the NCAA tournament was much needed for a team that had to play in the NIT for the past two seasons.

"I think everything just clicked," Vol forward Jarnell Stokes said. "This year, the team is a lot different from previous years because we see it all coming to an end. Guys are hungrier because we're older.

"We've been in the NIT twice and it's a terrible feeling to almost make the tournament."

Thinking back on all of those shortcomings and the Vols' bubble status throughout much of the season, simply getting to the Sweet 16 has McRae impressed after so many do-or-die games.

"It is impressive," he said, "just what we've done especially at the end of the season. If we would've dropped one of those games at the end of the stretch of the season, who knows where we would've been."​