Kyle Alexander, Tennessee's hidden gem, fuels OT win

Williams: I 'feel like a 5th grader on Skittles' (1:35)

Tennessee guard Grant Williams expresses his thoughts on the Volunteers advancing to the Sweet 16 with an 83-77 overtime victory over Iowa. (1:35)

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Kyle Alexander is the least decorated starter in Tennessee's lineup, but in certain pressure-packed moments, he can become the most important.

Alexander doesn't score the ball like Grant Williams or shoot the ball like Admiral Schofield or distribute the ball like Jordan Bone, but the 6-foot-11 senior forward affects games in other ways. When the Volunteers met Saturday ahead of their NCAA tournament second-round matchup against Iowa, they watched a video of their top games this season.

"Many times," coach Rick Barnes told ESPN, "it was actually Kyle in the game, making the difference."

Tennessee didn't seem likely to need a late-game lift from Alexander on Sunday. It built a 25-point lead on Iowa in less than 16 minutes and led by 21 at halftime. But the edge evaporated, both on the scoreboard and in the Vols' faces. After losing to Loyola-Chicago by a point in last year's second round, Tennessee was set up for more heartache. Had Sister Jean entered Nationwide Arena?

Then Schofield, who scored 17 points in the do-no-wrong first half but also had four fouls, made a decision. He subbed himself out, telling Barnes, "Play Kyle."

With Schofield watching, Tennessee re-established control in overtime, outlasting No. 10 seed Iowa 83-77 to reach the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2014.

"With four fouls, he knew they would come right at him," Barnes said. "He said, 'Coach, I can't guard the way I can guard, I'm going to foul. So you have to leave Kyle in.'"

Schofield has taken himself out of games before, but never in a bigger moment than Sunday.

"I'm a winner; it wasn't tough for me," Schofield said. "It was the right thing to do, and Kyle was playing really well."

Alexander played the final 14 seconds of regulation and all of overtime -- the first extra period in this year's NCAA tournament -- while Schofield sat. He finished with nine points, eight rebounds and a block.

"I'm not trying to say I'm the key X factor, but I do believe I offer something to this team that's different and unique," Alexander said. "The ability to get us extra possessions, the ability to just alter shots so my teammates can go grab rebounds, the ability to protect the rim.

"For Admiral to take himself out the game ... it shows his trust in me."

Tennessee needed all of its starters, plus Jordan Bowden off the bench, to prevent more tournament trauma. And this undoubtedly would have been worse.

The Vols spent a month at No. 1 and had the SEC's top player for the second straight season in Williams. Lacking an SEC regular-season or tournament championship, the 2018-19 Vols would have left a limited legacy, if not for Sunday's survival. Fair or not, the history most tied to them would have been the dubious distinction of being the second team in NCAA tournament history to blow a 25-point lead (Iona against BYU in the 2012 First Four).

When passing the media horde on the way to the interview podium, Williams joked, "Sorry we made you guys panic. Go Vols."

Tennessee looked panicky in the second half, recording more turnovers (10) than field goals (7) as Schofield (1-of-6), Bone (1-of-4) and others went cold. But the Vols never lost the lead.

Williams owned overtime with six points, an assist and a strip of Iowa's Tyler Cook, who had sparked his team's comeback after struggling for a game and a half at Nationwide Arena. Turner cranked up his defense against Jordan Bohannon.

"You don't want to lose in the second round again," Turner said.

A beaming Alexander struggled to pinpoint how it felt after. Elation? Exhaustion? Relief? He settled on ecstatic.

"I feel like a fifth grader on Skittles right now, I'm just so excited," Williams said.

Barnes did his postgame interviews in a March Madness hat and a half-zip, his suit a victim of a locker-room soaking.

"They got me good, they got me really good," he said.

The Vols didn't always play their best on the first weekend of the tournament. They likely will need an upgrade to take down another Big Ten team, Purdue, in the Sweet 16 later this week.

Sunday's win simply underscored a truth Tennessee players already knew: It will take everyone to keep this tournament run going.

"We're here now, we've got to thrive in the moment, we've got to keep working," Alexander said, "because it's not over yet. This group wants to stay together as long as we can."