This isn’t the blog I was planning on posting. The Vols were not supposed to end their season by losing in the second round. I’m not supposed to still be hurting two days later, but I am. As a Vols fan, losing games had made you numb to losses, but this loss just hurts more. I couldn’t watch any basketball on Sunday and I didn’t care to check my bracket. My eyes were still puffy from Saturday nights heart breaker and my emotions were still raw; Welcome to March Madness.
I get it, the odds of winning and doing well in the NCAA tournament are not easy. The reason why it hurts so much as a University of Tennessee fan is more than a just another UT upset. Vol Nation has watched a lot of losses over the years across the board in UT athletics. The hurt comes from knowing how special this team is and how much they overcame to put Tennessee men’s basketball back in the National spotlight. No one ever thought that the men’s team (25 wins) would have a better record going into the NCAA tournament than the Lady Vols with 24 wins. Both the Men’s team and the Lady Vols were a three seed and 247 Sports called the Vols the First Family of March Madness.
For a program that only won 31 total games in the last two seasons and were picked to finish 13th (second to last) in the SEC proved they were not the same team in October as they were in March. During the season, the Vols upset Purdue (a two seed) in November in the Bahamas, proved they could play with North Carolina in December and swept Kentucky for the first time in 20 years in the regular season. For the fourth time in their program history, the Vols won 25 or more games, won their first conference title in a decade, and got invited to the big dance for the first time since 2014. All with the 4th hardest schedule in the country.
Coach Rick Barns was named SEC Coach of the year and sophomore Grant Williams was named SEC Player of the year. And that Admiral Schofield, he was the anchor of the team. This team wasn’t supposed to be Nationally ranked for most of the season or give anyone a reason to talk about the Vols. Instead, this team formed a bond of talent and friendship that continued to wow the world of college basketball (for those who were watching). This team showed over and over they could play with anyone and man, it was just special to watch.
The Vols crushed their first round game against Wright State by only allowing them to score 47 points. (The fewest points allowed in an NCAA tournament history for the Vols.) Going into round two against Loyola-Chicago without injured Kyle Alexander hurt. The rhythm was off and foul trouble had my palms sweating as I was pacing my living room. I wanted to celebrate the Vols win, not Saint Paddy’s day. With a one point lead on a questionable out of bounds call and 3.6 seconds left, this is where dreams live and die in March Madness. Watching Loyola Chicago’s final shot bounce, and bounce and bounce again was like a slow-motion punch to the gut and a stab to the heart. Somehow, for some reason the shot went in and my eyeliner was running down my face. There would be no sweet 16 for the Vols and a lot of pain for all of Vol Nation.
My phone blew up with texts that ranged from I’m sorry to HA-HA! What hurt the most wasn’t just that they lost to a team that they should have easily beat or the X’s that were just added to my bracket. What hurt the most was seeing this special team grieving the loss as their hearts were just broken too. It hurts that the season is over and I can’t watch them play, I really loved watching this team play. Their grit, the way they fought for wins, their leadership, their post-game interviews and that amazing “don’t pick us” hype videos made for one of the most fun teams to be a part of in UT athletics. This team gave their all for Tennessee and I wasn’t ready for it to be over. I’m still not ready for it to be over.
I know deep down with everyone but James Daniel III returning next season, they will be back with an even bigger chip on the shoulder. Williams said after the loss “we’ve got to use this for next year because this feeling that we’re feeling right now, I don’t ever want to feel again.” And then Schofield reminded us why we love him so much. “It’s not over. We’ve still got a lot to build on, but you want to go further than this. We haven’t been here in a while, so it’s good to be able to be back, but we’ll be back. We’ll be back.”