KNOXVILLE — Tennessee. Sharpie. Any questions?
The Vols of coach Cuonzo Martin haven’t exactly gotten things done the easy way this season, so it was fitting on Saturday that a victory that might have earned them a spot in the NCAA tournament came in rough-and-tumble fashion over a scary good Missouri team.
Not on its best day would Tennessee out-talent Mizzou. But in securing a 64-62 win that one day could be considered a touchstone for Martin’s way of doing business, the Vols pounded the best rebounding team in the Southeastern Conference on the boards (45-32), beat the Tigers to nearly every key 50-50 ball down the stretch and showed the kind of mental toughness that carries the day when all else fails.
“They just kept going,” Missouri coach Frank Haith said. “They were playing with a sense of urgency.”
“Missouri’s a tough team, a very talented team that has a lot of pieces,” Martin said. “But we were fighting for something bigger. They’re (already) an NCAA tournament team. They weren’t competing for the (SEC regular-season) championships. We were fighting to stay alive. We had to have it.”
A lot had to happen for Tennessee to win and Missouri to lose. But in microcosm, the game trickled down to a battle of point guards, both talented yet inconsistent, both capable of giving or taking away in an instant.
He’s one of the most imaginative passers in college basketball, but Missouri’s Phil Pressey is prone to making bad decisions late in games. So it was against the Vols, when the man who was shooting 27 percent from 3-point range in SEC play cranked up a quick 3 with 9:01 to play and the Tigers ahead 50-42. A basket there—and Mizzou had been slicing up Tennessee with ball screen action and cuts to the rim—could well have stuck a dagger in the Vols.
Instead, four minutes later, it was Tennessee’s Trae Golden—who may be the most criticized player in the SEC who’s won two league player-of-the-week awards this season—who provided his team some separation by knocking down a 3-pointer that gave the Vols a 58-53 lead.
Some question his intensity and passion, but few outside the program know that Golden goes to the practice court every morning, usually early and usually with Tennessee assistant coach Tracy Webster, a former point guard at Wisconsin, alongside.
“I went over after the game and gave coach Webster a hug,” Golden said. “Every morning when we work out, he puts a cone (at about the same spot on the right wing that Golden made his 3-pointer) and he’ll yell ‘Under!’ ”
Little did Webster or Golden know how important that practice would become. After accepting a ball screen from the human tractor trailer Jarnell Stokes and watching Missouri guard Keion Bell go underneath it, Golden drifted right and behind the 3-point line, squared his body to the rim and let fly. When the ball sailed through the net, Tennessee fans went bonkers.
“I went off the screen and it felt just like (practice),” Golden said. “Like I was back in the gym. I pulled up and knocked it down and kind of looked over at (Webster). And he knew.”
Golden and Pressey still had parts to play.
Tennessee was leading 62-59 with 22 seconds left when Pressey pulled up for yet another quick 3-pointer, which failed to draw iron as it sailed out of bounds. This time, it was Haith's turn to go bonkers.
After the game, Haith wore a blank expression as he talked about Pressey’s decision to shoot.
“I wanted us to keep doing what we were doing and attacking the paint,” Haith said. “I didn’t want that shot. Simple as that. We had a stretch there where we were scoring getting to the rim on the quick two ball screen stuff and (Laurence Bower is) gonna be wide open on the throw back. Didn’t want that shot.”
Given another chance to secure the win when he was fouled with 11 seconds left, Golden watched as his first free-throw attempt bounced around the rim and finally fell. He swished his second and gave the Vols the final points they needed to advance to the Dance.
“It was do or die,” Golden said. “If you want to be an NCAA tournament team and everything that comes with it, you have to pull this one out.”