Vols reach Sweet 16 even though they can’t shoot against Texas. What does it mean?

CHARLOTTE — Imagine the complaints if the Tennessee Volunteers, up 12 in the second half on a team they outplayed in every way that effort, matchups and game planning can dictate, found a way to lose the game and pack it up for the season.

It almost happened. It’s happened before. It felt like it was happening again.

It didn’t, and Rick Barnes’ Midwest Region No. 2 seed Vols get a Sweet 16 trip to Detroit and Friday date with No. 3 seed Creighton as a result, because this team that suddenly can’t shoot straight got just enough to rattle through the hoop. And saw some on-target Texas Longhorns shots go halfway down and pop out. And summoned poise that these moments make especially elusive at the foul line — Jonas Aidoo, then Dalton Knecht, burying seven combined in the final 48.8 seconds to edge past the No. 7 seed Longhorns 62-58 on Saturday at Spectrum Center.

This program that had seven Sweet 16 appearances before Barnes arrived and now has three in his nine seasons, which is one win away from the second Elite 8 in its history, also can point to complaining as a factor. As in, complaining to each other. It’s not as easy as it may sound. Apparently, it wasn’t much of a thing earlier in the season.

When the Vols let a terrible shooting performance drag down their normally elite defense in an embarrassing SEC Tournament blowout loss to Mississippi State, it had to become more of a thing. It wasn’t just the defense, either. In that game, some of the struggling Vols were passing up shots that have to go up in the rhythm of an offense.

Bad shooting happens. Bad shooting that diminishes defense and causes offensive hesitation can’t happen.

“That was not our standard,” UT stopper Jahmai Mashack said of the SEC tourney fallout. “We had a meeting about it and we talked about it.”

Bad shooting happened Saturday — boy, did it. Try 3-for-25 from 3-point range as a team, with matching 1-for-8 outings from the two most reliable shooters on the team, Knecht and point guard Zakai Zeigler. Most of the shots were fine, too, the kind you have to take against a good defensive team. They just kept clanking. Typically in this event, Barnes said, “you get bounced when you shoot as poorly as we did.”

“But we found a way with our defense,” he said of a ferocious effort led by Zeigler and Mashack, those two along with Santiago Vescovi doing everything possible to hold Texas star Max Abmas to 10 points on a 3-for-10 night.

The Vols (26-8) got 10 more shots than the Longhorns (21-13) and had a 15-5 edge in points off turnovers, two critical stats in this outcome. Zeigler was credited with three steals in 40 relentless minutes but did so much more to pester Texas than the box score could quantify.

“The little dude causes a lot of problems out there,” Texas coach and Barnes protégé Rodney Terry said of Zeigler.

“He’s just a superhero,” UT senior Josiah-Jordan James said of Zeigler, who had six points, seven assists, four rebounds and countless snarls and smiles — after good and bad plays — in his return to NCAA play after missing last year’s tournament with an ACL tear.

Bad shooting happened. But elite defense still happened. Shots still went up, and Knecht and James hit two critical ones from long range in the final five minutes to keep Texas from a total takeover.

“It would be in our heads,” Zeigler said, “if somebody didn’t shoot the ball.”

The demands the Tennessee players made of each other after Mississippi State were obliged. It’s been a season-long process to get to the point of talking to each other that way, Mashack said.

“I think the thing that really brought us to that next level is really having that tough love with each other,” Mashack said. “Being able to tell each other, ‘Yo, you messed up on that play.’ Or, ‘You weren’t where you were supposed to be.’ Or, ‘You didn’t box out, you didn’t grab that rebound, you didn’t dive on the floor.’ So many examples of before, earlier in the season, we kind of held ourselves back. But now we say it.”

Late in the game, the talk was more urgent and supportive. Aidoo (11 points) was fouled hard going up for a dunk with 48.8 seconds left and the Vols up 55-53. His first foul shot came up short and bounded away. His second one swished. It was 56-55 with 24.3 seconds left when he stepped to the line facing the pressure of a one-and-one opportunity. Aidoo took deep breaths and produced two more swishes.

“You can never simulate that moment in a gym,” James said of Aidoo’s clutchness, for which James thanked him.

“I’ve been missing too many free throws lately,” Aidoo said at his locker with a shrug. “Needed to get more arch on it.”

Knecht completed a one-and-one of his own with 8.8 seconds left to go up 60-55, but a long Tyrese Hunter 3-pointer kept the pressure on the Vols with 3.9 seconds to play. In the huddle during that timeout, Knecht spoke up and started to say he wanted to be the one to get the ball and shoot free throws again. Before he could finish, Zeigler was demanding the same.

Knecht got the ball, got fouled and did what he and his father, Corey, imagined together so many times when he was growing up in North Dakota working on free throws. They’d pretend he was shooting them amid the thickest of pressure, the kind that can only be supplied by an NCAA Tournament game.

“It was a dream come true living in that moment,” Knecht said, and the SEC Player of the Year pointed to his father in the crowd when the buzzer sounded, and he’s on to the Sweet 16 after getting game highs with 18 points and nine rebounds.

But it would be nice if Knecht, or anyone on this team, could make outside shots at a reasonable rate moving forward. Nice, and probably necessary.

Maybe that’s why the Tennessee locker room was a more reserved kind of happy after this one than many are after an NCAA weekend is won. It was certainly less euphoric than a year ago when a win over Duke got UT to the second weekend.

“Seems like the lid has been on the basket the last two weeks,” Barnes said. “Whether people believe it or not, I think we can shoot the ball.”

Tennessee is in the Sweet 16, and while that staves off the usual complaints, it is not setting off any celebrations. It’s simply not enough. Imagine saying that a decade ago.

(Photo of Dalton Knecht dunking on Texas’ Dylan Disu: Jacob Kupferman / Getty Images)

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