Vols Fall to Jayhawks in NIT Tip-Off Championship

In the third matchup of the early college basketball season between two top 5 teams, the second ranked Kansas Jayhawks and fifth ranked Tennessee Volunteers lived up to the billing. With numerous lead changes down the stretch, the Jayhawks needed overtime to prevail 87-81 and hand Tennessee its first loss on the season.

For two teams with Final Four aspirations, the NIT Tip-Off Championship between Kansas and Tennessee was a late-night affair worthy of March. Two of college basketball’s best coaches renewing a rivalry. Big-time plays from each team’s best players. An early season overtime classic.

This unpredictably came after both teams struggled out of the gate to find any sort of rhythm. In the first twelve minutes of the game both the Vols and Jayhawks traded turnovers and went long stretches without a basket. Tennessee’s Admiral Schofield and Kansas big man Udoka Azubuike each sat down early with first half foul trouble. The two teams combined to shoot a putrid 5-22 from three through the first 20 minutes of the game. However, one of those made threes came on a Jordan Bone buzzer-beating triple just before the first-half buzzer. Bone and backcourt mate Lamonte Turner paced a cold-shooting Tennessee with 9 and 8 points respectively for a halftime 33-31 lead.

The Vols opened the second half with a bang when Grant Williams bounced a beautiful pass to a streaking Kyle Alexander for an and-1, left-handed dunk. Williams continued to find open shooters, passing out of double teams to wide open teammates for made jumpers that stretched Tennessee’s lead to 47-38. This nine point advantage would prove to be the Vols largest lead of the game. As expected from a team as talented as Kansas, the Jayhawks made a run with under ten to play. Back-to-back 3s and a foul line jumper by guard Lagerald Vick gave Kansas its first lead of the second half at 61-56. Tennessee refused to go away, though, thanks to its best player and reigning conference POY. Grant Williams scored two straight buckets — the second coming on a three pointer from the top of the key — to even the score at 61 apiece with fewer than five left in the ball game. He followed up the two huge baskets by fouling out Azubuike on a defensive rebound. One made free throw and another basket later and Williams had given the Vols a 64-61 lead on a self-engineered 8-0 run.

Williams’ exploits provided an opportunity for the Jayhawks best player in Dedric Lawson (yes, that Dedric Lawson formerly of the Memphis Tigers) to make plays of his own. The 6-9 forward scored four of his game-high 24 points to reclaim the lead late. When Williams fouled out with just under two minutes to play, Kansas would ride Lawson in overtime to a hard-fought 87-81 victory.

VOLS MISS OPPORTUNITY LATE

Williams single-handedly put the Vols on his back late in the game. After scoring eight straight points, he found Schofield for a huge three out of a double team for a 69-67 lead with just over two minutes left in the game. Kansas turned the ball over on the ensuing trip, giving the Vols a golden opportunity to stretch their lead into a two possession game with the clock winding down. Unfortunately, Tennessee couldn’t capitalize. Williams lost the handle inside and fouled Kansas guard Charlie Moore the next time down the floor. The foul prematurely ended his night and essentially killed Tennessee’s opportunity to escape Brooklyn with an early-season, resume-boosting win.

PLAYER OF THE GAME

Williams early-exit should not diminish one heck of an effort by the junior forward. The heart and soul of the Volunteers team once again stuffed the stat sheet with 18 points, 8 rebounds and six assists. He battled all night inside with two very tough interior post players in Lawson and Azubuike. Moreover, he once again demonstrated his newfound ability to step outside and hit big shots from beyond the arc. Tennessee looked like a staggered prize fighter after Vick hit three straight daggers to give Kansas a five point lead. But thanks to Williams, the Vols wouldn’t go away.

Vols fans should enjoy him while they can. With more performances against some of the best talent college basketball has to offer, he’s unlikely to be in Knoxville for his senior campaign this time next year.

MOMENTUM-CHANGING PLAY (OR NOT)

Yves Pons made two spectacular plays in a span of fifteen seconds, but sadly the play resulted in a four point swing in Kansas’ favor. With Tennessee up 47-41 with around 12 minutes left in regulation, Pons had a chase down block that saw the ball ping-pong off the backboard. A mad scramble resulted in the Vols heading in the other way. A missed shot by Tennessee saw the ball bounce off the front of the rim. Pons followed up the miss with a put-back flush, but the refs waived it off because of a goaltending call. The next trip down, Kansas scored. Instead of a six point lead, Kansas cut the score to 47-43.

As game commentators Dan Shulman and Jay Bilas pointed out, the goaltending call appeared incorrect after replays showed Pons collecting and dunking the ball after it was already outside of the cylinder. While one play doesn’t lose you a basketball game, the call proved a big one when both teams finished regulation tied at 69.

SELF CONTINUES DOMINANCE OF BARNES

Coaches don’t always win or lose a game for their players. That said, it’s hard to ignore the fact that Bill Self’s teams now own a 16-6 career record against Rick Barnes. The two experienced coaches and former Big 12 opponents faced each other multiple times a year when Barnes coached the Texas Longhorns. Prior to Barnes departure from Texas in 2015, Self had won 7 of the last 8 meetings between the two. After tonight, Barnes now finds himself on the losing end once again.

The continued dominance of Barnes did not stop Self from doling out high praise of the Tennessee team, especially Grant Williams. Said Self,

We may not play a better player than Grant Williams this year. He’s a load.

VOLS AND SCHOFIELD COLD FROM OUTSIDE

Tennessee shot 7 for 27 from the three point line. Admiral Schofield had another rough night shooting the basketball from deep, as the senior only connected on 2 of his 8 shots from deep. In his last five games, Schofield is shooting only 32% from three. He collected the majority of his 21 points in overtime, trying to help the Vols keep pace once Williams fouled out. The Vols will need Schofield to space the floor and make open looks when called upon to prevent teams from doubling Williams in the post.

Speaking of operating in the paint, there’s no doubt that this Tennessee basketball team is at its best when the ball goes inside to the paint. In his postgame press conference, Rick Barnes made a point to voice his displeasure over how many three pointers Tennessee took in the game. When Kansas had multiple players in foul trouble late in the game, the Vols missed an opportunity to draw contact and get trips to the free throw line. Kansas shot thirteen more free throws than Tennessee (34 to 17) because their guards repeatedly attacked the rim.

UP NEXT FOR THE VOLS

The Vols head home from Brooklyn with two straight homes games on tap against lesser opponents in Eastern Kentucky and Texas A&M CC. The Vols then head to Phoenix to take on what could be the number one ranked team in the country in the Gonzaga Bulldogs followed by a trip to west to renew a rivalry with the Memphis Tigers.

Like Tennessee basketball? Check back all season for previews, recaps, and other hot takes under our College Hoops tab.

And don’t forget to follow me at @farmerbarn and fellow Vols writer @BarnBurnerZiggy.

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