Rick Barnes leads Tennessee past Texas, his old team

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The NCAA Tournament is about the players.

It, too, is often about the coaches.

And, in the case of Saturday night’s tense, 62-58 Tennessee win over Texas in the NCAA Tournament second-round game at the Spectrum Center, this was, to a large degree, definitely about Volunteers coach Rick Barnes.

Rick Barnes voices his displeasure at a call during the second half Tennessee’s 62-58 NCAA Tournament win over Texas. Getty Images

Barnes’ Vols reward for having just completed their lopsided, first-round victory Thursday over Saint Peter’s was a clash with Texas, where he coached from 1998-2015, and a coach, Rodney Terry, who was an assistant for him from 2002-11 and remains a close friend.

“I think if you ask both of us would we rather be playing someone else, the answer would be yes,” the 69-year-old Barnes said before the game. “Those guys [at Texas] probably know me as well as anybody. They know how I think. It is tough when you are playing against guys that have … been a part of my career for a long time.’’

Once the ball was tipped, however, Barnes and his No. 2 seeded Vols shook off those emotions and took care of business, though not without some serious stress.

Texas turned what looked a game that Tennessee appeared to have total control of into a thriller in the end and now Vols advanced to a Sweet 16 matchup with No. 1-seeded North Carolina next week in Los Angeles.

The final moments were stressful for Barnes and his team, as Texas whittled the Vols lead down to 56-55 with 34.5 seconds remaining.

It took clutch free throw shooting from Tennessee to survive and advance.

Ironically, four of those fouls shots came from Dalton Knecht, one of their top scorers who had a miserable shooting game (5-for-18 from the field, 1-for-8 from 3-point range).

Knecht sank two free throws with 8.8 seconds remaining to give Tennessee a 60-55 lead.

That was followed by a long 3-pointer by Texas’ Tyrese Hunter to cut it to 60-58.

Dalton Knecht jams two of his game-high 18 points on Texas forward Dylan Disu on Saturday night in their NCAA Tournament second-round matchup. AP

Knecht then made two more free throws with three seconds remaining to make it 62-58 and clinch the victory.

A look at the stat sheet in the first half would tell you that Tennessee was simply superior to Texas, with the Vols leading 28-19 despite having shot only 28.6-percent (10-of-35) from the field, including 1-of-13 from 3-point range.

Texas (21-13) actually shot the ball better than Tennessee in the first 20 minutes (30.8-percent) and still trailed by nine points, which was not a good sign for the Longhorns.

The Vols did it by being the more physical team, outrebounding the Longhorns, 24-19, in the first half (with nine off the offensive glass) and getting to the foul line eight times, making seven free throws, while Texas got to the line only twice.

Texas didn’t help itself by committing 11 turnovers in the first 20 minutes.

Tennessee was led by Knecht’s 18 points, Jonas Aidoo’s 11 and Tobe Awaka’s 10.

Tennessee’s two best players, Knecht and point guard Zakai Zeigler, had miserable first halves.

Knecht missed eight of nine shots, including 0-for-4 from 3-point range, and had just four points.

Zeilger, from Long Island, was 1-for-7 from the field and had just four points in the first 20 minutes.

The Texas rally in the second half made for nervous moments for the Vols, but they survived and advanced — with a major exhale, particularly from Barnes.

Jonas Aidoo celebrates after Tennessee’s victory over Texas. Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Barnes has led Tennessee to six NCAA Tournament berths in his nine years at Rocky Top, and has now advanced to Sweet 16 for the third time.

When he parted ways with Texas in 2015, at least part of the reason was his failure to get the Longhorns deep enough into the NCAA Tournament for school officials’ liking.

Under Barnes, Texas won at least 20 games in 15 seasons, including a run of 13 consecutive seasons with 20 or more wins from 2000-12.

He left Austin with a 402-180 record, the winningest coach in program history.

But Barnes, in his final seven seasons at Texas, failed to get the Longhorns into the Sweet 16, which frustrated school administration.

He was asked to make changes on his staff and Barnes, fiercely loyal to his staff, refused to do so and was fired.

“Coming to Tennessee was a blessing,” said Barnes, who’s guided the Vols to six consecutive NCAA tournaments with two Sweet 16s. “I didn’t know it at the time. It’s a special place. I’ve been blessed from the time I’ve gotten there. I couldn’t have asked for a better` way to be in a position where my career will end.”

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