DALLAS — Tennessee basketball players were hunched in front of the locker room stalls, some with towels draped over their heads, others weeping softly.
Media brought cameras and microphones into the cramped area filled with wooden cubicles after a mandated 15-minute “cooling off” period Saturday afternoon at American Airlines Center.
The Vols locker room was still running hot with frustration and despair after the season-ending 63-62 loss to No. 11-seed Cinderella Loyola Chicago in the NCAA Tournament.
The Ramblers rattled in a final shot with 3.6 seconds left, the ball bounding above the rim and falling back through the cylinder.
Moments later, Tennessee sophomore point guard Jordan Bone pulled up from the top of the key and launched a shot that bounced out of the basket.
The Vols’ magical season came to an abrupt end. The SEC regular-season co-champions, the nation’s No. 13-ranked team and the No. 3 seed in the South Regional was knocked out.
Six days earlier, Tennessee released a slick video: “Don’t pick us.” It was a fun-loving way for the team to remind everyone that they had been snubbed in the preseason, picked to finish 13th in the SEC.
The Vols, at 26-9 the third-winningest team in program history, seemed even more destined for a deep tournament run when South Regional No. 1 seed Virginia and No. 4 seed Arizona fell victim to upsets.
The March Madness turned to sadness with noteworthy sports alums Jason Witten and Scotty Hopson in the arena, watching from a Tennessee section that included more than a few donors who have their names on campus buildings.
Bone had seemingly finally hit the stride coach Rick Barnes was looking for all season, pushing the tempo and hitting shots to keep the Vols in the game against Loyola Chicago.
Barnes identified Bone as an X-factor for the tournament. His size, speed and explosion were qualities that could carry a program to the Final Four, provided Bone was focused.
Bone couldn’t stop the tears from flowing, knowing he’d been defeated on a day when he was at his best.
“It’s over man, it’s over,” Bone repeated several times.
Suddenly, the mood shifted, and it clearly wasn’t over.
Junior Admiral Schofield entered the locker room, having just finished a postgame podium interview session with SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams and Barnes.
“It’s NOT over, we have a lot to build on,” Schofield said, loud enough to be heard by teammates. “We wanted to go further than this, but we haven’t been here in a while. It was good to be back and we will be back again. We will be back.”
Schofield has been the leader of Barnes’ team, a resilient voice when times have called for it, playful and loose on other occasions when he saw fit.
Schofield’s leadership came into play once again Saturday afternoon when he was asked about Bone, who appeared unwilling to forgive himself for missing the potential game-winning shot.
“Jordan is unguardable when he wants to be, and he did a great job [Saturday], he was locked into the scouting report,” Schofield said, making sure to speak loud enough that Bone could hear him. “His effort was unbelievable.”
“So,” Schofield was asked, “how do you console a teammate in Bone’s situation?”
Schofield shrugged, “You have to let him get it out, you have to let it hurt, because that’s what makes people go harder and makes people want to come back and be different.”
The message had been sent.
Time will tell which other names come up with “Schofield” and “Lamonte Turner” when Barnes is asked who the gym rats are on the team this offseason.
Williams was fuming at his locker stall. Too angry with himself to feel the pain of the defeat, the SEC Player of the Year knew he hadn’t performed at his best against the Ramblers.
“We played hard, but we weren’t playing smart,” Williams said, still wearing his game face an hour after the final buzzer.
Williams hasn’t gotten comfortable with the “player of the year” tag, aware there were plenty of other SEC candidates just as deserving, some with better statistics.
Williams’ 12 points and 3 rebounds on Saturday seemed paltry, considering the matchup.
But Williams had responded for Tennessee with the game on the line, scoring on a conventional 3-point play that put the Vols ahead with 20 seconds left.
Williams, asked to talk about that play, rejected any consolation, saying “It’s something I didn’t do the entire game, being aggressive.”
James Daniel III, who chose Tennessee over Michigan for his graduate transfer senior season, handled the moment like a professional. Disappointed, but Daniel was not demolished like the other members of the fifth-youngest team in college basketball.
Daniel understood what had happened. The NCAA scoring leader of two seasons ago, Daniel had taken a countless number of last-second shots, some that went in, others that didn’t.
“It didn’t finish the way I envisioned, but God has a plan for everything,” said Daniel, whose basketball career will likely continue overseas. “I enjoyed myself at Tennessee, all the great people I met, all the bonds.
“This will be my family forever. I’ll be a Vol For Life.”
Then there was Turner, the player every Tennessee player, coach and fan wanted to see take the last shot on Saturday. Turner was the teammate Bone looked for as he raced the ball up court after receiving the inbounds pass with 3.6 seconds left.
“We weren’t able to get the stops,” Turner said, referencing Loyola Chicago shooting 50 percent from the floor in its win over Tennessee. “We had a good regular season. I don’t really call it a good season. I feel like we could have gone further.”
Turner will likely be the first player back in the Pratt Pavilion practice facility, aware he didn’t get his shot heated up until the second half, which proved too late.
“It hurts, I’m emotional, and I think a lot of guys are,” Turner said. “We don’t know how to feel right now. We have to come back and always remember this moment and work even harder.
“We can build off this and get better … it’s hard to talk about right now.”
Like Schofield suggested, the tears shed and words spoken in the open locker room were necessary.
Barnes said he’s glad the loss hurt his players, because Tennessee can get added motivation from it to make the defeat part of a process and not an ending.
The commentary and emotion shared with media was taking effect even as the 40-minute open locker room session came to an end.
The players heard themselves, and one another, talking out loud. Another lesson had been learned by a group of players who hadn’t been to the NCAA Tournament before, but now burn with the desire to get back.
“I never, me, this team, we never thought we would lose,” Jordan Bowden said, disbelief still stuck on his face. “We didn’t think this type of situation would happen to us.
“I think we will work harder and get better from this.”