When you play close games, you put your heart out there to be broken. We can argue about the match-up and whether this game should have been this close, but too much of that does a disservice to Loyola-Chicago, both their season and their performance today. This was a good team, and they played like one today.
Tennessee, also a good team, didn’t play particularly poorly. The Vols shot 45.5% from the floor, a not-terrible 36% from three, and only turned it over seven times. But the Vols were taken out of their flow in a couple of ways. Admiral Schofield looked like he would write himself into the first page of Tennessee basketball lore in the first five minutes, but foul trouble hampered him the rest of the day. The Vols, healthy all year, didn’t have Kyle Alexander today. Tennessee blocked only two shots, only the fifth time in 35 games they had less than three on the year. Six offensive rebounds was tied for the second-fewest of the year. They did get some flashes of promise from Derrick Walker.
But I think more than anything, Tennessee couldn’t do what it needed to do to disrupt what Loyola wanted to do. The Vols only shot six free throws (and only made three of them), erasing what could have been one of their biggest advantages over the Ramblers. The lack of free throw opportunities is one of the consequences of taking so many threes. And, especially without Alexander and with Schofield in foul trouble, Tennessee’s defense couldn’t consistently stop Loyola’s offense, which was as good as advertised. The Ramblers shot 50% from the field and 40% from the arc; the Vols couldn’t pull away from them defensively and weren’t productive enough offensively to do the same. And that’s how you get a game decided on the final possession. Grant Williams made a play I’m not sure Loyola could have stopped. Clayton Custer got a bounce on a tough shot there’s nothing Tennessee could do to stop. And the Vols fall by one.
Perspective is elusive when your heart is broken, of course. For me, the pain isn’t because Loyola was an 11 seed; we knew those guys were better than that coming in. There is pain from the lost opportunity with the one seed out in this region after Virginia’s loss, but we also shouldn’t pretend the Vols were one bounce from punching their ticket to San Antonio. Cincinnati is still alive and well. And in the clear-path department, we’ve actually seen better/worse: the 2000 squad went to the Sweet 16 as the highest seed left in the region, but lost to North Carolina as an eight seed. When we catch our breath, we might find this isn’t the very worst of anything.
But it was a bad bounce for the good guys, and it always hurts in March. There will also be time to look forward to next year and get excited about everyone but James Daniel coming back, and rightfully so.
But don’t forget to look back, too. This team will be SEC Champions forever. They changed the direction and narrative of Tennessee’s basketball program in a single year. And they gave us the best season we’ve seen from the revenue-producing sports in this athletic department in eight years.
For today, it hurts. But for all they were this year, and all they’ll have a chance to be tomorrow, we are grateful.