Why did Tennessee's coach bench a star in OT? Because the star told him to

Yahoo Sports

With its 25-point lead gone and Tennessee fighting to avoid the ignominy of a historic NCAA tournament collapse, head coach Rick Barnes made a puzzling decision. Throughout overtime of a second-round win over Iowa, he left one of his best players, Admiral Schofield, on the bench. Why?

Turns out it wasn’t Barnes’ decision. It was Schofield’s.

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“He didn’t want to play,” Barnes said postgame.

Said Schofield: “I just made a sacrifice, and said, ‘You know what, take me out.’”

It was a remarkably selfless decision for a competitive, 21-year-old athlete to make — an All-SEC player, by the way, who had played in crunch time all season.

But on Sunday, he wanted a teammate on the court in his place.

Tennessee's Admiral Schofield (5) reacts after winning a second round men's college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament against Iowa, Sunday, March 24, 2019, in Columbus, Ohio. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Tennessee's Admiral Schofield (5) reacts after winning a second round men's college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament against Iowa, Sunday, March 24, 2019, in Columbus, Ohio. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Barnes: Schofield ‘didn’t want to play’

Barnes was asked, straight up, why Schofield didn’t play in overtime. His response?

“He didn’t want to play. He kept saying, ‘Leave Kyle in the game.’”

“Kyle” is 6-foot-11 senior Kyle Alexander, whom Schofield would have replaced in the small-ball frontcourt late in the game. But Alexander, who had eight points and nine boards, stayed in the game at Schofield’s request.

“He said, ‘Kyle is important,’” Barnes continued, relaying Schofield’s message. “With four fouls, he knew they were gonna come right at him. And he said, ‘Coach, I can’t guard the way I need to guard. So you gotta leave Kyle in.’”

Schofield had four fouls ... but so did Alexander

If Schofield’s reasoning was his four fouls, it was simply illogical. And had Tennessee lost in overtime, it would have been one of the most infamous and absurd decisions in NCAA tournament history.

Four fouls don’t, or at least shouldn’t, change the way a player plays in overtime. The penalty for a fifth is disqualification. Preempting it by disqualifying yourself makes absolutely no sense.

Furthermore, Schofield wasn’t the only one with four fouls. Alexander picked up his fourth in overtime. So, despite Barnes mentioning the four fouls at his postgame news conference, surely that wasn’t Schofield’s reason.

What was Schofield’s reasoning for not wanting to play?

It’s unclear what exactly his reasoning was, though. Schofield spoke about the decision afterwards as well. "It is going to change the game for us," he recalled telling the coaches. "[Alexander] did a great job for us.”

“I’m a winner,” Schofield continued. “At the end of the day, if I don’t have to be on the floor to win, that’s fine.”

Said Barnes: “At the end of the game, Admiral kept saying, ‘You gotta leave Kyle in. Don’t put me in. We gotta leave Kyle in,’”

Barnes also said: “Because they felt like he could do what he needed to do.”

Barnes later said he didn’t question Schofield’s judgement. “Because Kyle was effective. And Kyle wanted to play. And Kyle did a lot of great things today.

“The guys were really locked in. They’ve been together a lot. They were talking during the timeout. We actually, at one time, put Admiral back in the game in regulation, but he said, ‘Coach, leave Kyle in the game.’ He said, ‘We have to have him there to rebound the ball for us.’”

So perhaps rebounding was the real reason? That would make more sense.

But Schofield mentioned the fouls as well. “I got four fouls, I’m kinda cold, been on the bench for a stretch of time, so take me out, put Kyle in,” Schofield said he told Tennessee coaches. “And he did a great job on the boards.”

Said Alexander, Schofield’s classmate and roommate: “It feels amazing. I came in here immediately after the game and told him, ‘Thank you for fighting for me.’ Because, personally, there have been some games this season where I felt like I could’ve had more of an impact if I was on the court. And he agreed with me.

“I love him,” Alexander concluded. “That’s my brother. For him to do that is big-time.”

Explained Schofield: "The trust and connection we have on this team, it would be selfish on me to think I have to take the game in my hands when we are a team. That is what we are. In that moment, I just want to win. I didn’t think I was giving us the best chance to win.”

Tennessee players reiterate Schofield’s story

Guard Jordan Bone confirmed the story. “Admiral was like, ‘No man, no, no. We need Kyle in there,’” Bone said in the locker room. “‘Take me out. Leave me out of the game. We need Kyle’s presence in there.”

“That was big time,” Bone continued, “for Admiral to understand that, in the moment, we were better with Kyle in there. That’s huge, that’s huge. Especially for a guy that had been playing the way he’d been playing the whole game, to step outside himself and think team-first. I think that was the play of the game.”

Said guard Lamonte Turner: “AD is an unselfish guy. AD told coach that Kyle needed to be in. AD put himself on his bench. That speaks about AD’s character. He’s a great guy. We respect AD, he’s our leader of this team."

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A testament to Schofield’s maturity and coach-player trust

Schofield’s teammates lauded his selflessness after the game. “It’s trust and love," Grant Williams said of Schofield's decision. "That’s the chemistry we have. ... I will look back at that moment years from now and say, ‘That is a great guy. That is a guy who really loves his team.”

It’s also a testament to what Barnes has built at Tennessee, and to the relationship he has with his players, that he trusted Schofield and complied with his pleas.

“You realize,” Barnes said postgame, “the players, they have a better feel than anybody in the building. And [Schofield] felt like that was the best thing. And Lamonte Turner kept saying the same thing, too. ‘We gotta have Kyle in the game.’

“Normally in those situations, we go with a small lineup, because it’s a pretty efficient lineup. But I trust my players. I do. And the fact that they felt he needed to be in the game, we went with it.”

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Henry Bushnell is a features writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.

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