Vols wrap up First Four with big comeback
DAYTON, Ohio (AP) Tennessee gave the NCAA tournament its first improbable comeback. Cal Poly won, too – which was improbable in itself.
The First Four turned into quite a starting point.
With forward Jarnell Stokes using his 280 pounds to dominate inside and a highly regarded defense finally locking in, Tennessee wrapped up the Final Four with a 78-65 victory over Iowa on Wednesday night.
Stokes opened overtime with a three-point play that put Tennessee ahead to stay, and the Volunteers’ defense held Iowa to one free throw in overtime.
”I told our guys we’ve been through everything this season, keep your composure down the stretch,” said coach Cuonzo Martin, who got his first NCAA tournament win in his third season at Tennessee. ”Find ways to win the ball game.”
The Vols (22-12) head to Raleigh, N.C., where they’ll play sixth-seeded Massachusetts on Friday in the Midwest Regional. They left Dayton with a lot of momentum – six wins in their last seven games.
”We did a tremendous job toward the end of fighting back,” said Jordan McRae, who had 20 points. ”We did a great job on our defense. For us to hold them like we did was a great job.”
Tennessee didn’t lead until Antonio Barton’s 3-pointer put the Vols up 59-57 with 3:05 left regulation. There were five lead changes before McRae missed a jumper missed at the buzzer, leaving it tied at 64.
Stokes’ three-point play in overtime was the key moment in his 18-point, 13-rebound performance, putting the Volunteers ahead to stay. It was his 20th double-double this season, the most by a Volunteer since Bernard King had 22 of them in 1976-77.
Tennessee’s highly regarded defense took it from there. The Hawkeyes (21-13) missed all eight of their shots from the field in overtime.
It was a tough ending to a long and stressful day for Iowa coach Fran McCaffery. He started the day in Iowa with his teenage son, Patrick, who had surgery to remove a thyroid tumor. His assistant coaches led the Hawkeyes through a meeting and their final practice, and McCaffery was back by game time.
Martin and the Volunteers hugged him after the game and wished him well.
”Their players hugged me and told me they were thinking of me,” McCaffery said. ”I was really impressed with their guys and the program Cuonzo has built there.”
The night started with Cal Poly becoming the first 19-loss team in 59 years to win an NCAA tournament game, stunning Texas Southern 81-69.
Chris Eversley scored 19 points and David Nwaba had 17 to help Cal Poly (14-19) become the first team since Bradley in 1955 to win with so many losses on the season.
Now the team with the worst record in the tournament moves on to face the one with the best – top-seeded Wichita State (34-0) – in the second round in St. Louis on Friday.
It’s exactly what Mustangs coach Joe Callero had hoped.
”I’m so weird that I was cheering the last five years that a 16 (seed) never upsets a 1,” he said. ”Because if we ever got a bid, we’d be a 16 seed and then we’d have a chance to make real history.”
The Mustangs were 4-9 early this season. They didn’t exactly inspire confidence heading into the Big West Conference tournament, having lost nine of 11, but they still won the title to earn the program’s first NCAA bid.
Held back by injuries all year, a team that shot 41 percent from the field for the season saved its best for last by hitting 57 percent on the biggest stage. The 81 points was its second-most in a game all year.
Eversley laughed when asked if Wichita State should be worried.
”We’re going to get on a plane tonight, get to St. Louis, Missouri, and just go start on a scouting report and make sure we’re ready for Wichita State – and go out there keep playing the way we’ve been playing,” he said.
Aaric Murray closed out his career with 38 points for Texas Southern (19-15), champs of the Southwestern Athletic Conference tournament.
”They took advantage of our mistakes defensively,” said Texas Southern coach Mike Davis, who had also led Indiana and UAB into the tournament. ”They shared the ball well. They had one turnover in the first half. It’s hard to beat a basketball team that has one turnover.”
AP Sports Writer Rusty Miller in Dayton contributed to this story.