Rick Barnes celebrated No. 3 Tennessee’s win over previously-ranked No. 1 Gonzaga on Sunday with a Cheerwine and bag of Cheetos on the way home.
Barnes had plenty to celebrate. For the first time in his coaching career, his team had just beaten the No. 1 team in the country. In typical Barnes fashion, though, he wasn’t aware that for as long as he’s been coaching, he had never knocked off the top dog. It took Admiral Schofield mentioning it in the post-game press conference.
“How ‘bout him (Schofield) yesterday?” Barnes said on Monday. “It was a great day for him.”
In fact, it was a career day for Schofield. The senior forward scored a career-high 30 points, surpassing his previous career-high of 25 points in the second half alone. After just a five-point performance in the opening 20 minutes, Schofield exploded in the second half, shooting 10-of-17 from the field and totaling 25 points, including the game-winning three in the final seconds.
“I’ve sat in that gym for so many hours with him over four years and watched how hard he’s worked,” Barnes said of Schofield. “I’m just really happy that he had a big day like that, but he knows he’s got more work to do.”
Schofield made five threes in the second half, but none were bigger than the two he hit in the final two minutes of the game.
Down 71-70 with 1:20 remaining, Schofield drained a three to give Tennessee a two point lead. After Gonzaga’s Rui Hachimura made a pair of free throws to tie the game at 73-all, Schofield nailed the game-winning three-pointer with 22 seconds remaining. The pair of NBA-range threes capped an 11-5 Tennessee run that spanned the final 3:17 of play. Schofield scored all 11 points during the run.
“He (Schofield) was feeling it and you knew it,” Barnes stated. “I didn’t care if it was a three or he took it and drove it. Whatever. It was up to him to make a play, and he took it and felt good with what he did. And it went down for him.”
Junior forward Grant Williams fouled out with 2:30 remaining in the game, putting Tennessee in the same situation it found itself in against No. 2 Kansas earlier in the season. Williams fouled out against the Jayhawks with 1:24 remaining and Tennessee up two. Without Williams, the Vols’ struggled to close out the game and fell to Kansas 87-81 in overtime.
This go-round, Schofield picked up the slack with Williams on the bench and took it to the Zags.
“When (Grant Williams) went out, we knew we were going to play through him,” Barnes said of Schofield. “He came down just a little dribble hand-off to let him get a running start, and he can make a play whether it’s to get it to the rim, pull up and shoot it, or kick it out to one of his teammates. Remember, the little 15-foot jump shot he made earlier was a big play. We called the same play on the floor, and everyone knew it was on except him. That’s the one he stepped back and banked in.
“We called the timeout, and we came to the bench. We said, ‘Where do you want it?’ He said, ‘I don’t care.’ It was really neat because the guys on the bench, we’ve got a play where we post he and Grant down low, and I said, ‘No, we’re not posting him. We’re going to run this play.’ I told him, ‘You pick and pop and make a play.’ Jordan Bone actually did a terrific job dragging the defense down toward the elbow area to give Admiral a chance to really get his feet under it.”
After Schofield drilled back-to-back 3’s to give Tennessee the lead, but the game was far from over. With 17 seconds remaining, Gonzaga called a timeout. Out of the timeout, Zach Norvell Jr. missed a three and on the rebound, Kyle Alexander was fouled by Josh Perkins.
With Alexander at the free throw line and a chance to put the game away, the senior missed his free throw. Hachimura grabbed the rebound and pushed the ball down the floor while Mark Few declined to call a timeout and set up his offense. With four seconds remaining, Hachimura missed a 3-pointer that would have tied the game and sent it to overtime. Yves Pons grabbed the rebound to put an exclamation point on Tennessee’s win.
“I thought our team really responded well to that basket,” Barnes said of Schofield’s go-ahead three. “The best part of the game was that last possession after that three was how well we got back and got matched up. It was our best defensive transition possession of the day, and it was big.”
Schofield had the option at the end of last season to declare for the NBA Draft. The Illinois native entered his name in the draft process but withdrew it after working out with several NBA teams. His intentions were to receive feedback from the league in order to know what areas of his game he needed to improve on the most. The intention was never to forego his senior season.
“We’ve coached some terrific players in terms of no one’s gonna put in any more time,” Barnes stated. “No one’s more committed to being a player. He’s got tremendous passion, and I meant what I said. I’ve been in that gym with him for four years and just watched him keep going and going. He wants to get better. He’s grown up a lot emotionally.
“I’ve been hard on him, and he says his dad and I coach him kind of the same way. We both want the best for him, and he knows you’ve got to get better like the rest of our team. He’s young in his career, and he’s got the chance to be a much better player. He knows that.”
The last time Tennessee was ranked this high was in 2008 when the Vols were ranked No. 1 after upsetting No. 1 Memphis on the road. That following Tuesday, though, Tennessee lost to Vanderbilt in Nashville. This Saturday, the Vols will look to avoid a similar story line as they travel to Memphis to take on Penny Hardaway’s Tigers.
“We’ve got to work to get better.” Barnes said. “I’m not just saying that. We really have to.”