ORLANDO — At the under-8 timeout, the March boogeyman could’ve appeared for Rick Barnes yet again.

A year earlier, his team led by 6 points at that same point in a Round of 32 game against Michigan. After seemingly being in control, the Vols surrendered an 18-6 run and were sent packing by an 11-seed. It marked the 9th time in the past 10 NCAA Tournament appearances that Barnes failed to make it out of the opening weekend.

This time, in a Round of 32 game, Tennessee found itself in familiar territory. The Vols led by 7 at the under-8 timeout, but instead of entering as a significant favorite, the Vols were underdogs against a Duke team that had won 10 consecutive games and was starting to get national championship buzz after flipping the switch defensively with a healthy Dereck Lively. If Duke had climbed back like Michigan and sent Barnes packing before the second weekend yet again, “devastating” would’ve been an understatement after the way his team controlled the Blue Devils in the first 32 minutes.

Instead, a different script played out.

Tennessee’s defense suffocated Duke. Instead of even thinking about choking, the Vols bullied the red-hot Blue Devils into submission.

Sorry, March boogeyman. Not this year for Barnes.

Did the similarities between this year and last year even cross his mind?

“Actually not. I’m glad I didn’t. I didn’t at all because this is a different team,” Barnes said. “Right from the beginning, I felt our guys were really locked in, and when you’ve got a day in between and you play the late game like we did — obviously we got back yesterday and came in. But from the time we walked in this building yesterday, I could just sense our guys were going to be really locked in.

“They knew what was at stake and what they were playing for, and certainly have a great deal of respect for Duke and how they do things.”

“What was at stake” was a berth in the Sweet 16, and potentially more given the stunning development of 1-seed Purdue’s stunning loss to 16-seed Fairleigh Dickinson in the East Region.

We’ve got time to dig into that. For now, though, let’s call Saturday what it was.

That was the most impressive Barnes victory at Tennessee, and it’s not even close.

I know, I know. The Vols have beaten the No. 1 team in the country this season, and they’ve had no shortage of “we’re back” moments. Barnes won an SEC Tournament title last year and he earned no worse than a 5-seed in his 5 NCAA Tournament appearances, including this year wherein his team entered as a 4-seed after getting as high as No. 2 in the country. Barnes has had no shortage of impressive, statement victories in Knoxville.

But consider this: That was Barnes’ first NCAA Tournament victory against a single-digit seed since 2008 when he was at Texas. It had been 15 years since he beat anyone seeded No. 9 or better. That is, until Saturday.

All Barnes did was dial up the perfect defensive game plan and push all the right buttons.

Well, I could argue that Uros Plavsic getting some of Jonas Aidoo’s minutes wasn’t the best coaching decision and how Olivier Nkamhoua only played 5 minutes in the first half is beyond me.

On second thought, Nkamhoua’s lack of early playing time might’ve actually played a significant part in Tennessee failing to run out of gas. He was unstoppable in the second half. He had a career-high 27 points, 23 of which came in the second half.

“In the locker room, my guys saw me, I was a little bit antsy because I didn’t get to play in the first half, so I just came in ready to play. I had fresh legs,” Nkamhoua said. “I feel like that gave me a little bit of extra edge. I was probably the only guy on the floor with fresh legs.”

He was fresh because that game was anything but “finesse.” If you didn’t have a chinstrap on, well, you were at risk of getting bloodied and bruised. Just as we’re used to seeing from Barnes’ teams, that defensive pressure was cranked up. Duke had its worst offensive output of the season trying to score over Aidoo and the physical Vols, who rank No. 1 in adjusted defensive deficiency.

“That’s what we do. We’re a tough, hard-nosed team. That’s how we play everybody,” Nkamhoua said. “But knowing that they had a lot of freshmen, we knew that if we come in and apply more pressure and be tough and physical, then they would have to deal with it.

“What we were saying before the game the whole time is we were going to bring them into the mud with us and make them play a tough, hard-nosed game and see if they were ready for it.”

(Duke leading scorer Kyle Filipowski had a cut under his eye less than 6 minutes into the game. He looked like a heavyweight fighter getting cleaned up by the Duke training staff.)

It did. By day’s end, it was clear who had the team of grown men and who had the team with 4 freshmen starters. Duke had just 5 second-chance points and a lone 3-pointer in transition was the only fast-break points to speak of.

That game had Barnes’ DNA all over it.

Of course, past NCAA Tournament losses also had a little too much Barnes DNA all over it. In all of those 9 first weekend exits in his previous 10 NCAA Tournaments, his teams were held to less than 70 points in regulation. So why wasn’t Saturday any different? Well, in addition to Nkamhoua’s career day, the ageless Santiago Vescovi caught fire and drilled 4 3-pointers to add 14 points for the usually offensive-starved Vols.

There was plenty of reason to doubt that this would be a different March story for Barnes. His team entered the NCAA Tournament having lost 7 games since the start of February when it earned that aforementioned No. 2 ranking. The Vols kicked off March by losing point guard Zakai Zeigler to a season-ending injury, and then went 1-2, including an SEC Tournament quarterfinals loss to Mizzou. Shoot, even Thursday’s opening round game was a 3-point win against 13-seed Louisiana that got too close for comfort down the stretch.

All of it felt like it was leading toward another disappointing end to a Barnes-led team.

At least it did to those on the outside world.

“All you’ve got to do (to see why were confident) is two things,” Vescovi said. “One, watch the way we practice. We’re a really united team. Second of all, as a player, you just look to the side, and everybody trusts each other. We’re a man down, but we always have the mentality of next man up.

“And I couldn’t trust more the guys that I have around me, the coaches. I think they all did a great job, and even the last couple weeks I think they were just building us up to this moment and getting us prepared for the tournament.”

By day’s end, it was easy to forget that Duke was the favorite who came in with all the momentum. Nkamhoua insisted that the Vols didn’t hear that outside noise.

After the game, the Vols soaked in the moment. Uros Plavsic blew kisses to the Duke faithful as the Vols walked off the court (Blue Devils fans weren’t thrilled about that). You could hear shouts of “BIG DOG!” from the Tennessee locker room. Plavsic dapped up Nkamhoua after they entered the Amway Center tunnel and the day’s leading scorer shouted “sometimes it go like that! Sometimes it go like that!”

Ironic, that is. It really has never gone like that for Barnes at Tennessee. Amidst all of his regular season success, Saturday felt like a 1 of 1 victory. Barnes knocked off a surging blue blood, and did so without his point guard. His team will advance to the Sweet 16 for the second time since he arrived on Rocky Top.

And boy, did they earn it.