DAYTON, Ohio — With Jarnell Stokes using all of his 280 pounds to get an advantage inside, Tennessee pulled of the first last-minute comeback of the NCAA tournament.
Stokes dominated inside as the Volunteers finally caught up in the closing minutes of regulation, then opened overtime with a three-point play that set up a 78-65 victory over Iowa on Wednesday night, finishing off the First Four.
The Volunteers (22-12) head to Raleigh, N.C., where they’ll play sixth-seeded Massachusetts on Friday in the Midwest Regional.
“I told our guys we’ve been through everything this season, keep your composure down the stretch,” said coach Cuonzo Martin, who got his first NCAA tournament win in his third season at Tennessee. “Find ways to win the ball game.”
They found a very improbable way.
Tennessee didn’t lead until Antonio Barton’s three-pointer put the Vols up 59-57 with 3:05 left regulation. There were five lead changes before the Vols’ Jordan McRae missed a jumper at the buzzer, leaving it tied at 64.
Stokes’ three-point play was the key moment in his 18-point, 13-rebound performance, putting the Volunteers ahead to stay.
Tennessee’s highly regarded defense took it from there, holding Iowa (21-13) to one free throw. The Hawkeyes missed all eight of their shots from the field in overtime.
It was a tough ending to a long and stressful day for Iowa coach Fran McCaffery. He started the day in Iowa with his teenage son, Patrick, who had surgery to remove a thyroid tumor.
His assistant coaches led the Hawkeyes through a meeting and their final practice, and McCaffery was back by game time.
McRae led the Volunteers with 20 points and Josh Richardson added 17. Adam Woodbury had 16 points for Iowa, which got a subpar performance from its leading scorer. Roy Devyn Marble was only 3 of 15 from the field for seven points, matching his season low.
The ending will sting the Hawkeyes for a long time.
They switched defenses and opened the game with a 16-4 run. The Hawkeyes led 29-26 at halftime and kept swatting away the Volunteers’ runs until the last few minutes of regulation.
Marble’s basket tied it at 64, and he was guarding McCrae when he missed his fadeaway shot at the buzzer sending it to overtime.
Tennessee got an at-large bid by closing the season with a defensive flourish.
The Volunteers won five straight before losing to No. 1 Florida 56-49 in the Southeastern Conference tournament.
They gave up 61.1 points per game, second only to Florida in the SEC, and allowed an average of only 47.4 points in the last four games.