Tennessee’s first two games of the N.C.A.A. tournament have proven that the team is either the biggest underachiever still alive or the tournament’s worst overachiever. The Volunteers played like the most dangerous No. 2 seed in the first half against Iowa on Sunday, then looked like the most vulnerable No. 2 after halftime.
Thanks to a dominant overtime by Grant Williams, the Southeastern Conference’s two-time player of the year, the Volunteers, who had blown a 25-point first-half lead to No. 10 Iowa, avoided what would have been the most egregious collapse in N.C.A.A. tournament history. Instead they walked away having won, 83-77, pushing through to the South Region semifinals.
Williams dazzled in overtime, scoring six of Tennessee’s first nine points. He also contributed a critical steal for the Volunteers, who will play third-seeded Purdue on Thursday night in Louisville, Ky. It will be the Volunteers’ first trip to the round of 16 since 2014, when they crashed the tournament as a No. 11 seed.
This season they have rated among the nation’s best since November, even spending a month as the top-ranked team, but their performance across their two games in Columbus, Ohio, has challenged their standing as a championship contender in a region fronted by Virginia.
Tennessee struggled in a 77-70 first-round victory against No. 15 Colgate, after which its coach, Rick Barnes, said he thought his team looked “a little bit anxious.” That anxiety seemed to have vanished in the first half Sunday, when the Volunteers complemented swarming defense with inside-out balance, racing to a 44-19 lead.
Trailing by 21 at halftime, Iowa opted not to try to run with Tennessee in the second half. Slowing down the pace, the Hawkeyes fed the ball inside more to Luka Garza and Tyler Cook. With Tennessee taking questionable shots and committed turnover after turnover, Iowa went on a 17-2 run. Jordan Bohannon’s three free throws — on what seemed a questionable foul call on Lamonte Turner, who appeared to have blocked the 3-point attempt cleanly — tied the score for the first time, at 67-67, with 2 minutes 39 seconds remaining.
Iowa, bidding for its first visit to a regional semifinal in 20 years, overcame a four-point deficit in the final 58 seconds to send the game into overtime. Had the Hawkeyes won, they would have matched Brigham Young’s comeback in 2012 against Iona.