DALLAS — Tennessee basketball coach Rick Barnes has led four different programs to 23 NCAA Tournaments, but the elimination game loss never gets any easier to swallow.
“It’s always a tough way to lose a basketball game, the buzzer-beaters,” Barnes said after the No. 3-seed Vols (26-9) were eliminated by No. 11-seed Loyola-Chicago on Saturday night at American Airlines Center.
“But I’m proud of our guys, they kept fighting, found a way to stay in it and put themselves in position to have a chance to win it.”
The Ramblers (30-5) won 63-62 when Clayton Custer’s twisting jumper rattled around the rim and fell in with 3.6 seconds left, and then Jordan Bone’s jumper at the top of the key rattled around the rim and came out as time expired.
It was a heartbreaking defeat for Tennessee, which rallied from 9 points down with 3 minutes and change left to reclaim the lead with 20 seconds remaining on Grant Williams conventional three-point play.
“I’ve seen a lot of these kind of games,” Barnes said, “buzzer-beaters, and it hurts.”
One key to the game was that Vols center Kyle Alexander was still hurt after injuring his hip in Thursday’s opening round win over Wright State.
Alexander was a late scratch from the starting lineup, and Tennessee sorely missed his 6-foot-11 presence protecting the rim with his team-leading shot-blocking skills.
Barnes said the Vols have no replacement for Alexander, and Loyola-Chicago took advantage, hitting 50 percent of its shots and outrebounding the SEC co-champions 27-24.
The Missouri Valley Conference Ramblers, who set a new single-season record for victories, advance to play the winner of the game Sunday between No. 2-seed Cincinnati and No. 7-seed Nevada in the South Regional Sweet 16 in Atlanta.
Tennessee, meanwhile, returns to Knoxville, where it will be back to work.
“I told them once we step back and decompress from all of it, we’ve done a lot,” said Barnes, whose team was picked to finish 13th in the SEC in the preseason. “We won’t be picked to finish 13th next year in the league, or 14th.”
Barnes said he believes the loss will serve as a motivator for the Vols, who return all of their players except senior guard James Daniel III.
“You know they’re crushed. We all are,” Barnes said. “But 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.
“We’ve got a lot of guys coming back, all but one, and they can use it as a catalyst to want to get back here and try to go deeper and further.”
It’s clear that Barnes isn’t viewing Saturday’s loss as the end, so much as another step in the process of building a championship program.