On an enjoyably chaotic day in sports, headlined by some key NFL results and incredible endings, the most riveting and competitive tilt from start to finish on Sunday took place in Phoenix.
And it wasn't a football game.
No. 1 Gonzaga and No. 7 Tennessee played close to the final seconds, and in doing so gave college basketball arguably its best game of the season so far. Or maybe there's no argument to be had in that regard. If Gonzaga beating No. 1 Duke in the Maui Invitational title game on Nov. 21 was considered the apex to this point, then Tennessee ending Gonzaga's undefeated run -- and getting there thanks to a superhero performance by an unexpected character -- usurps it.
The Tennessee Volunteers cemented their credentials as national championship contenders on Sunday afternoon when they came back from a nine-point second-half deficit to defeat previously flawless Gonzaga, which will slip from the top spot in the polls come Monday.
The Vols' stirring 76-73 win was fueled by a career performance out of Admiral Schofield, a senior wing who had a personal-best 30 points -- and six 3-pointers -- including a couple of ridiculous late treys that clinched the win for Rick Barnes' seventh-ranked Tennessee club. Schofield came up huge, and not just because of his 6-of-10 shooting from beyond the arc and 12-of-22 overall output.
It's how he stepped up when Tennessee could have had a moment of panic.
Tennessee's best player, Grant Williams, fouled out with 2:30 left; the Volunteers were down 70-68 at that point. A similar scenario played out approximately two weeks ago, when Tennessee was in a two-point game on a neutral court against an undefeated team with Final Four aspirations: Williams fouled out in the final 90 seconds of UT's game against Kansas. The Volunteers went on to lose their only game of the season to this stage.
Schofield was not going to allow Tennessee to fly home Sunday as a 6-2 club. This is a 7-1 team thanks to Schofield playing the game of his life. He talked trash and then backed it up. His final two shots lifted UT to a win that truly ranks among the best in program history. First there was this 3, which gave Tennessee its final lead of the game, and was a smooch of a bank shot. You kidding me with this, Schofield?
And here's the triple -- again, from Schofield -- that locked up the win. Yes, from behind the NBA line.
"Didn't get Kansas, but it's great to get the the No. 1 team in the country," Schofield said on television after the win.
He was also asked about the competitive banter that was caught by cameras in the second half between he and Gonzaga's talented shooting guard, Zach Norvell Jr.
"Honestly, I love when people talk to me," Schofield said. "You give me motivation, I'm coming."
How do you not love that? And if you watched Vols-Zags, how do you not love both of those teams? That was a tremendous game, with Tennessee's win qualifying as one of the very best on any résumé in college hoops.
The performance was so good, it will have the sculpted Schofield vaulting onto mock drafts in no time. To win against Gonzaga in that style -- using the 3, which Barnes isn't prone to push for from his team, collectively -- instantly elevates Tennessee's reputation. A win like this does a number of things, tangential and material, for UT. First, it obviously puts the team in the conversation to climb into the top five of the polls. But winning against Gonzaga also irrefutably lumps the Vols into the national-title convo.
Not just "Final Four contender." No. Tennessee can win the national championship in Minneapolis next April. That might have been true even with a loss on Sunday, but a win makes it a lot easier to envision. Only seven turnovers for the Vols against the Zags, who still managed to keep UT to 39.5 percent from 2-point range.
At this stage of the season, we must include Tennessee with the likes of Gonzaga and Duke and Kansas and Virginia and Nevada and Michigan. Right now, that's the top tier. Some of those teams could fall out, and others may well join in a couple of weeks, but the top shelf of college basketball in mid-December exclusively features Bulldogs, Blue Devils, Jayhawks, Cavaliers, Volunteers, Wolf Pack and Wolverines.
Sunday's outcome means a lot more for Tennessee than Gonzaga, by the way. In fact, the loss might not wind up amounting to much in the end if the Bulldogs prove to be top-five quality once Killian Tillie and Geno Crandall are in the lineup. Zero shame in Gonzaga losing a game on a neutral court to a borderline top-five team -- especially without two of its seven best players. (The Zags will be fine, but keep an eye on their tricky road test next weekend at UNC.)
Sunday was about Tennessee, which got its first win against a No. 1-ranked team in almost nine years (January of 2010). For Barnes, it's his first win against a top-ranked team in his long, distinguished career.
Jordan Bowden, a junior guard, played well -- and Yves Pons even gave Tennessee some new looks with his athleticism and playmaking in the first half. There's a lot to like with what's developed in Knoxville. Reigning SEC champs, a team loaded with experience and full-grown men. Tough as you-know-what, and now showing it can win by adaptation as opposed to needing to dictate, always, on its terms.
You'd be a fool to doubt the Vols at this point. Let Admiral remind you one more time.