DAYTON, Ohio — Tennessee took a bus a little more than 300 miles up Interstate 75 for an NCAA tournament game.
The Volunteers had no desire to take one back to Knoxville.
The impending red-eye flight to Raleigh, N.C., for its second-round game a little more than 36 hours away didn't put a damper on Tennessee's locker room after the fashion in which the Vols fought to earn themselves another game.
After falling into a 12-point hole in the game's opening eight minutes and repeatedly going down five points most of a tight second half, Tennessee outscored Iowa 14-1 in overtime to notch a gritty 78-65 win in the NCAA tournament's "First Four" on Wednesday night at the University of Dayton Arena.
"The first time being in the tournament, the first win, and the way we won, being down the whole game, and they way we came back and fought, that's huge," Vols leading scorer Jordan McRae said after scoring a team-high 20 points.
"It shows how tough this team is. We fought the whole game. When we tied it, they hit a 3. We were fighting the whole game. For us to win how we did, it was huge."
Shortly after wrapping up postgame interviews, Tennessee (22-12) headed to the airport and hopped on a charter jet destined for Raleigh, where sixth-seeded Massachusetts awaits on Friday afternoon at around 2:45, after third-seeded Duke plays No. 14 Mercer at the PNC Arena.
"We didn't want to go out this way," Tennessee forward Jarnell Stokes said. "There was five-hour bus ride to get here, and only one person is riding on the plane. That was part of our motivation.
"We just found a way to win. We found a way to take care of business. We took it into overtime, and from there on, we took off with the score."
It was a tough way to go out for the Hawkeyes (20-13), who were playing with heavy hearts. Fourth-year coach Fran McCaffery was in Iowa City on Wednesday morning for his 13-year-old son Patrick's surgery to remove a thyroid tumor and flew back to Dayton later in the afternoon.
The Hawkeyes' mascot wore a t-shirt over his garb that read "#TeamPat" in a show of support.
"Focus during the game was fine," McCaffery said after Iowa's seventh loss in eight games. "It was a day that, needless to say, has been very difficult. I got up at 5:00 a.m. and we had Patrick at the hospital at 6:00.
"He's getting prepared for surgery on his neck to remove a tumor, and you're talking about a potential malignancy and things of that nature, and you're saying to yourself, 'Wow, it puts wins and losses in perspective.'"
With Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart and chancellor Jimmy Cheek sitting in the first two rows behind Tennessee's bench, third-year Vols coach Cuonzo Martin notched probably the biggest win of his tenure in his first NCAA tournament game in his six-year coaching career.
"I don't deal with criticism," he said. "That's time and energy wasted. What was said? I don't know, because I don't have the time and energy. Where I'm from, the way I was raised, I just can't waste time on it."
Eight minutes into the game, it looked like Iowa was about to run Tennessee off the court.
The Hawkeyes led 8-0 and took a 16-4 lead barely eight minutes into the game. Tennessee missed its first six shots and didn't score until Armani's Moore basket at the 13:59 mark.
"The jitters got to us," Vols forward Jeronne Maymon said. "First time being here, we were really excited. I think we were kind of a little over-excited, but we calmed down and we got it right."
Tennessee scored the last seven points of the half and trailed 29-26 after a half in which it allowed Iowa to shoot 52 percent was outscored 12-2 in transition and 19-4 in bench points.
"We were constantly talking the whole game, especially at halftime," McRae said. "We were down three, and that was probably our worst basketball we played in about three weeks. For us to be down three and play that bad, we knew were in good shape."
Said point guard Antonio Barton: "They gave us their best shot, and we didn't in our first half, and we were still were down three."
The second half featured plenty of back-and-forth drama, with every shot, rebound and loose ball carrying so much meaning.
It also featured plenty of Josh Richardson.
The Tennessee junior missed all five of his shots in the first half, but he scored six straight points during one stretch that included a high-flying one-handed slam to keep the Vols in the game as Iowa found success with 7-foot-1 center Adam Woodbury (16 points) inside and Peter Jok (10) outside.
"I remember specifically, we were walking out on the court for the second half, and [assistant coach] Kent Williams was just like, 'Relax and play and shoot,'" said Richardson, who finished with 17 points.
"I was just trying to go too fast. I was just trying to get energy going. I guess too much energy, but once I calmed down it came together."
Richardson also continued to show his defensive prowess by holding Iowa's leading scorer Roy Devyn Marble to a seven-point night on 3-of-15 shooting.
"If Josh wouldn't have did what he did this locker room would be in a totally different mood than we're in now," McRae said. "That pretty much sums it up."
Iowa led 57-52 with 4:33 left, but Barton gave the Vols their first lead of the game on a 3 with 3:07, but Marble converted a three-point play at the other end. Woodbury answered with a basket after two Stokes free throws, and Maymon scored and was fouled with 54 seconds left to put Tennessee ahead 63-62.
Stokes split a pair of free throws with 25.5 seconds left, and after Marble tied it on a gutsy jumper over Richardson, McRae's shot clanged off the rim at the buzzer.
Tennessee was just 3-11 in games decided by 10 points or less this season, but the Vols seemed much more poised coming down the stretch of regulation on the sport's biggest stage.
"It's just basketball then," Maymon said. "Once all the jitters leave your body, it's just basketball. That's all that is."
Stokes converted a three-point play on the first possession of overtime, and after McRae scored to give the Vols a five-point lead, Tennessee iced the game at the free-throw line, where the Vols were 10-of-11 in overtime and 25-of-30 for the game.
"At halftime we had that mentality," Barton said. "We told each other, 'We're not ready to go home.' We didn't want to go home. We were gonna come out and leave it all on the court."
As the Vols put the game away, the crowd of 11,534 filtered out to leave just the Tennessee fans, who chanted and soaked up every moment of the program's first NCAA tournament win since the Elite Eight run of 2010.
"This is one of the hardest games I've ever played in," Barton said.
The next one is a plane flight and blink of an eye away.
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...