KNOXVILLE – Down eight midway through the second half, it looked like Tennessee’s NCAA tournament chances were withering away.
That might've been true for a team not as tough as Tennessee.
But powered by a 9-0 run, the Vols came storming back. A spinning layup by Jarnell Stokes at the 1:03 mark gave the Vols a 62-57 lead. Two free throws from Trae Golden with 11.6 seconds left sealed the 64-62 win.
Golden’s front end of the 1-and-1 situation drew iron three times before finally dropping through. Missouri (22-9, 11-7) tacked on a late 3-pointer, meaning Golden’s first free throw eventually proved to be the game winner.
“I thought it was off,” Golden said. “I was just happy it went in. That’s all that was going through my mind. Just got
the lucky roll.”
The Vols (19-11, 11-7 SEC) will take that small stroke of luck, because they earned the hard-fought, comeback win on Saturday. Trailing 50-42 at the 10:07 mark of the second half, coach Cuonzo Martin called a timeout and challenged his team.
Tennessee chiseled the lead to four at the 6:44 mark before five straight points from Jordan McRae helped the Vols vault back into a 54-53 lead with just over five minutes left. It was a lead they wouldn’t give up.
“Early in the season, I didn't think we were a very tough team, I really didn't,” Martin said. “I thought there were a lot of errors we had to improve – scoring the ball, defending, everything, you name in, but we got better and the guys stuck with it.”
“They [Missouri] were fighting to win a game. We were a team fighting for our lives.”
That toughness and desperation could be seen all over the court.
It was personified in the effort of McRae – who had just a single point in the first half, but rallied to finish with a team-high 15 points. It was shown through Stokes, who finished with his 14th double-double on the season (13 points, 13 rebounds) despite Missouri throwing four separate defenders at him throughout the course of the game.
Josh Richardson showed it by guarding lightning-quickly Missouri point guard Phil Pressey and holding the SEC’s Preseason Player of the Year to 10 points on 4-of-12 shooting. And as a team, the Vols won the rebounding battle 45-32 despite Missouri coming into the game as the second-best rebounding team in the nation.
“We wanted that game from a rebounding standpoint,” Martin said. “Two things we had to do was do a tremendous job of boxing out the rebound and to press and get that ball in transition and I thought we did well in those areas.”
As has been the case multiple times this season, the Vols got a strong contribution from an unlikely candidate. Redshirt freshman Quinton Chievous had a career-high seven points, five rebounds and two assists. He also contributed 14 minutes of quality defense in the win.
Four seniors – Dwight Miller, Rob Murphy, Kenny Hall and Skylar McBee – were honored before playing their final home game before an over-capacity crowd (21,767) at Thompson-Boling Arena. McBee and Hall were the only two to see the floor and McBee’s six points accounted for the only scoring from the group.
It wasn’t a collection of storybook performances for a group that contributed to an 85-50 record over the past four years, but a key win for the Vols is enough of a prize for the group on Saturday.
“The most important thing is to win the game that's presented to us, play a certain way, compete at a high level,” Martin said.
The Vols wrapped up a No. 5 seed in next week’s SEC tournament and will play the winner of the South Carolina-Mississippi State game on Thursday at 3:30 p.m. ET in Nashville. This marks the second season in a row the Vols have won eight of their last nine contests in the regular season, but an SEC tournament-opening loss to Ole Miss last year knocked the Vols out of the NCAA tournament field.
They’ll hope for a better outcome this year. And for some better news come Selection Sunday next week.
“Our goal is to go try and compete and win an SEC tournament and I think that's the most important thing,” Martin said. “First team that's presented to us, get a game plan and try to win the ballgame."
Daniel Lewis covers University of Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga