DAYTON, Ohio – No matter where you stand on Cuonzo Martin, give the man credit.
He doesn't quit. And his team doesn't quit.
The perseverance exhibited by Tennessee's Vols in their 78-65 overtime victory over Iowa on Wednesday night is a direct reflection on their coach. After a horrible start and some sinking spells in the second half, the Vols refused to go quietly and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
UT now has a second-round matchup with No. 6 seed UMass in the East Regional at Raleigh, N.C., on Friday afternoon. The winner of that game plays again on Sunday, with Duke the likely opponent.
Among the spoils of victory is an upgrade of Martin's job security. But if he is feeling any pressure, he doesn't show it.
"I don't deal with criticism. It's time and energy wasted," he said afterward. "… I'm consumed with success."
By beating Iowa, Martin became just the fourth coach in UT history to win an NCAA Tournament game. Think about it. Only Don DeVoe, Jerry Green and Pearl coached the Vols to victories in the NCAAs prior to Wednesday night.
For UT, the encouraging thing is they played one of their best games of the season when the pressure was greatest. After falling behind 8-0 barely 4 ½ minutes in, they righted themselves with a run at the end of the first half and closed out the Hawkeyes with a dominant performance in overtime.
"Winning like this is good," said junior guard Josh Richardson. "It came at the right time."
Richardson was the difference. After going scoreless in the first half, he finished with 17 points and eight rebounds while also hounding Roy Devyn Marble on defense. Marble finished with only seven points, 10 below his average, and was rattled into 3-for-15 shooting.
Richardson scored six straight points during one key stretch in the second half, capping the run with a drive down the left baseline and an outrageous dunk. Later, he drove into traffic and dished a pass to Antonio Barton, whose 3-pointer pushed the Vols up 59-57 with 3:06 remaining in regulation.
"I knew we needed a spark," Richardson said with a shrug.
UT has won six of its last seven games, with the lone defeat coming against No. 1 overall seed Florida in the semifinals of the SEC Tournament last Saturday. A team that was so disappointing and frustrating for much of the season has hit its stride when it matters most.
"The guys just made a commitment down the stretch," Martin said.
While Martin steered clear of discussing his job status at UT, there is no disputing there is some unease. He is under contract through the 2016 season but it is no secret that he wants an extension that would give him more security and perhaps help in recruiting.
Last summer, Martin got a $50,000 raise but no extension on the original five-year deal he signed when he left Missouri State for UT after the 2011 season. He makes about $1.35 million a year.
UT athletics director Dave Hart has not addressed Martin's contract status publicly in recent months except to say he would evaluate everything at season's end. He has made it clear, however, that postseason success is an important factor in his evaluation process.
With that in mind, this overtime victory is a plus.
"Coach Martin does a great job of keeping us together as a family," said Jordan McRae, who topped the Vols with 20 points. "… We don't let outside influences affect anything that we're doing."
Although Hart has not shown his hand, most signs point to Martin's return for a fourth year with the Vols. Assuming he is back, Martin would be coaching a roster comprised entirely of his recruits. This year's team has two key players, McRae and Jeronne Maymon, that were leftovers from the Bruce Pearl regime.
But any meaningful talk about next season should be put on hold with UT's progress in the NCAA bracket. The next order of business is the game against UMass, a team from the Atlantic 10 that the Vols match up with very well.
One thing the Vols should try to do on Friday is avoid another horrible start like the one against Iowa. The Hawkeyes showed four different defenses on UT's first four possessions and it was as if the Vols had failed to prepare for it. Early on, UT had no answers except a couple of ugly airballs.
"It's the NCAA Tournament. We were nervous and it showed," McRae said.
Iowa led 29-19 inside the four-minute mark of the first half before UT closed the half with a 7-0 rush that ended when McRae grabbed a loose ball and flipped it through the net.
Later, McRae had a chance to win the game at the end of regulation but his step-back 18-footer was off. No worries. The Vols outscored Iowa 14-1 in overtime.
Thus, the team that didn't quit survived and advanced.