The first half was exactly what you would have expected from two defensive-oriented teams between Tennessee basketball and the Duke Blue Devils. UT finished strong to go up 27-21, and it seemed like the first team to 50 would win.
Much of the same happened throughout the first part of the second half. The Vols were leading 44-37 with just under 11 minutes to go, but given their history, you knew they were going to choke.
Instead, Duke head coach Jon Scheyer panicked and went to a zone. Rick Barnes kept it simple after that: Give the ball to Olivier Nkamhoua in the middle.
It worked, and the Vols pulled away to win 65-52 and reach the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament, their first since 2019 and their eighth in school history. With the No. 1 seed Purdue Boilermakers suffering an upset loss, their second Elite Eight is a very real possibility.
All of this came down to what Barnes did. Although Julian Phillips scored the first bucket against the zone with a dunk off an offensive rebound, Nkamhoua then scored 13 straight points for Tennessee basketball. He scored 17 after that switch overall..
For the game, Nkamhoua 27 points and five rebounds while shooting 10-of-13 from the field and 3-of-4 from outside. Barnes’ decision to immediately turn to him to break the zone was a stroke of genius and part of many great decisions he had made all day.
UT was always a defensive team, but they had a different strategy in this one than against the Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns. Rather than deny the pain, the Vols put on the pressure, and even without Zakai Zeigler, it worked, as they forced 15 turnovers and had eight steals.
Don’t get it twisted. They were still dominant down low. Jonas Aidoo had three blocks. But the pressure on the guards is what set the tone for UT in this one, and Scheyer could never adjust.
Before that zone, Tennessee basketball was just lucky that Santiago Vescovi had returned. After a silent game against Louisiana, Vescovi had 14 points and was 4-of-8 from three. He also had five assists while Josiah-Jordan James had four.
Still, James was having an off-game shooting the ball, so in another scenario, that wouldn’t have been enough to win. Barnes made that happen with his defensive scheme and his switch to beat Duke’s defense.
For far too long, Barnes has been seen as a coach who sticks to his ways and underperforms in the Big Dance. In this game, though, Duke was the school that shockingly had the coach underperforming. When has that happened?
Because of that, Tennessee basketball has what might be its biggest win in history outside of its 2010 Sweet 16 victory over the Ohio State Buckeyes. The Vols beat a blue blood to reach the second weekend of March Madness.
Now, they will face either the ninth-seeded Florida Atlantic Owls or the 16th-seeded Fairleigh Dickinson Knights, who shocked the Purdue Boilermakers on Friday. Everything is falling into place for them, and an Elite Eight is now the expectation.
With a week to prepare against a lesser foe and James due for one of those red-hot shooting nights, Tennessee basketball is in great shape to advance even further. This has opened up a world of possibilities.