When a two-seed and 15-seed link up in the NCAA Tournament, the underdog isn’t supposed to stand a chance.
That wasn’t the case on Friday afternoon in No. 6 Tennessee’s (30-5) NCAA Tournament opener. The Vols had to brush off a valiant effort from Colgate, as the heavy underdogs attempted to biggest upset of March Madness this year.
The upset bid appeared to be bleak for the Raiders (24-11) midway through the first half of the Vols’ 77-70 win. Tennessee jumped out to a 9-0 lead, but Colgate responded with a 10-4 run to cut it to a three-point game. UT responded themselves, extending the lead to as many as 16 in the opening half.
Tennessee controlled the first 20 minutes, and though it felt as if the Vols were ahead by 30, Colgate trailed by just 12 at the break. The Raiders only made 11 shots in the first half, but six of them were from beyond the 3-point line. Sophomore guard Jordan Burns led the charge, shooting 4-of-5 from beyond the arch.
“He was terrific,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said of Burns following the game. “Looked like he had a magnet on that ball.”
Burns continued to steal the show in the second half. The New York native led Colgate to an eventual 52-50 lead with 11:35 remaining. Burns scored 20 points in the second half on 8-of-13 shooting as he knocked down four more 3’s.
“He (Burns) was a star today, he really was,” Barnes said. “He’s got a quick release. We were switching on some ball screens and he took advantage of driving guys down the lane.
“I’d like to have him on our team tomorrow.”
Burns would finish the game with a career-high eight 3-pointers on 13 attempts. His 32 points was the second-highest output of his career, only trailing the 35 points he scored in Colgate’s previous game against Bucknell in the Patriot League Tournament Finals.
“It was nothing we could really do,” Tennessee guard Jordan Bowden said. “He was hitting really tough shots.”
Mercifully for the Vols, Burns would cool off right as Colgate had grabbed all of the momentum. The sophomore made back-to-back threes at the beginning of the second half to cut Tennessee’s lead to four at 44-48. He would then miss his next four 3-point attempts before making the final two he attempted in garbage time.
With Burns cooling off, it was Admiral Schofield’s turn to steal the show.
Schofield played 36 minutes, and 32 of them were rough for the senior forward. Schofield was just 3-of-11 from the field during those first 32 minutes, including 0-for-4 from three. But it was the final four minutes of the game that flipped the script.
With Tennessee up by just three, Schofield drained a triple to extend the Vols’ lead to six. Three minutes and five seconds later with his team up by just three once again, he drained back-to-back 3’s to extend the Vols’ lead to nine and put the game away.
“It was just getting my feet set,” Schofield explained. “I was going to hit that one. I had to hit one before I left tonight.”
Schofield finished the game with 19 points on 6-of-14 shooting. He added four rebounds and an assist as well. Despite the slow start, his teammates had no doubt that Schofield was the one they wanted taking those late shots.
“We trust him to take those shots because he’s succeeded in those moments before – earlier this year,” Tennessee point guard Jordan Bone said. “It just goes to show how much work he’s put in.”
Tennessee will need Schofield to continue to hit big shots down the stretch if it’s going to achieve something they’ve never achieved before. The win over Colgate didn’t come easy, but it was much-needed. In the words of Bowden and Bone, the game with the Raiders will have them even more prepared for Tennessee’s second round matchup with 10-seed Iowa because it wasn’t a gimme.
“To get through this tournament, you’re going to have games like this,” Barnes said. “I think a game like today is what makes the NCAA Tournament the NCAA Tournament.”
The Vols will tip with the Hawkeyes on Sunday with a chance to advance to the program’s eighth Sweet Sixteen and their sixth since 2000.