DALLAS - Jordan Bone sat facing his locker with his head buried in his hands, which clutched a tissue just minutes after they clutched a basketball with Tennessee's season on the line.
Kyle Alexander and John Fulkerson's faces were covered with towels while, like Bone, Jordan Bowden sat facing his locker with head buried in hands.
The view from press row of the final sequence. pic.twitter.com/cHMpYL336N— David Cobb (@DavidWCobb) March 18, 2018
The sprints that started on the campus track last April, the summer trip to Europe, the preseason conditioning, a steady stream of practices and the grind of a 35-game season all came down to one painful sequence that transpired just minutes before this somber moment in the Volunteers' locker room Saturday night at the American Airlines Center.
Unbelievable ending. Loyola Chicago wins 63-62, ending Tennessee's season in the round of 32.— David Cobb (@DavidWCobb) March 18, 2018
Loyola-Chicago's Clayton Custer made a shot to put the No. 11 seed Ramblers ahead by a point with 3.6 seconds left, and Bone drove the length of the court to fire a shot that was just a bit too long at the buzzer.
Just like that, No. 3 seed Tennessee's season was over in a 63-62 loss to Loyola in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
"All the work we put in, getting this far and coming up short," Bowden said. "It hurts."
Tennessee (26-9) led 15-6 early, struggled for the next 30 minutes and then erased a 10-point deficit in the final four minutes in front of a stunned crowd in the South Region matchup.
When Grant Williams converted a three-point play with 20 seconds left to give the Vols their first lead of the second half, it appeared that a team picked to finish 13th in the Southeastern Conference was about to pull off the unthinkable once again and advance to the Sweet 16.
Then, after a video-reviewed out-of-bounds call that favored the Ramblers (30-5), Custer's shot and Bone's miss at the buzzer, Tennessee's magical ride was over. Loyola moves on to the region semifinals in Atlanta this week and will face either Cincinnati or Nevada next.
"You know, they're crushed. We all are," Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. "But I told them, I said, 'Hey, I'm glad it hurts a little bit,' because sometimes I've had some teams you wonder if it hurt deep enough."
The scene in Tennessee's locker room left no doubt of the hurt. After several minutes, Bone turned around, his eyes red and his voice quiet.
"It doesn't feel good man," Bone said. "It's just how it bounces. It hurts so bad. Honestly, I've never felt like this in my life."
The sophomore point guard scored 13 points, handed out five assists and did not turn the basketball over against Loyola in a performance that was perhaps the most consistent of any player on the team.
Admiral Schofield led Tennessee with 14 points but only scored three after racking up 11 quickly in the opening minutes. Williams added 12 and Lamonte Turner had 10.
Starting center Kyle Alexander was unavailable due to a hip injury, but his first missed start of the season did not affect the Vols early.
Their offense was in sync to start, and the defense was playing well. Then, Loyola's quick ball movement began to poke holes in a defense that had allowed only 47 points in a first-round victory against Wright State on Thursday.
Loyola took a 29-25 lead into halftime and opened a 58-48 advantage with 4:06 left.
Tennessee finally cracked the code defensively and held the Ramblers without a field goal for more than four minutes until Custer's game-winner.
"They got a good roll on the shot, and it went in," Schofield said. "That's how March goes. If you want to not be in that position, you've got to do the things that go into winning, and we didn't do that consistently. But we played hard and fought back at the end. It's just, that's March Madness for you."
Schofield, asked about how the Vols might console Bone, suggested that it was best that he let his emotion out.
"You've got to let it hurt, because that's what makes people go harder," Schofield said. "That's what makes people want to come back and be different. We've got to experience this. For me, I've just got to be strong for everybody.
"We're going to work hard, and we'll be back."
Contact David Cobb at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @DavidWCobb and on Facebook at facebook.com/volsupdate.