Tennessee's basketball team continues its "Close But No Cigar" tour of Southeastern Conference cities.
The Vols suffered yet another tough SEC road loss Thursday at No. 23 Ole Miss. The Big Orange was outscored 18-6 over the final seven minutes, turning a 50-44 lead into a 62-56 loss to the Rebels.
Ole Miss, now 16-2, is 5-0 in SEC play for the first time since 1937. Tennessee slips to 9-8 overall and 1-4 in conference play.
The Vol defense limited the Rebels to 18 first-half points by holding them to 17.4 percent (4 of 23) from the field and 0 percent (0 of 8) from 3. Ole Miss warmed up considerably after the break, however, hitting 53.8 percent (14 of 26) from the field and 58.3 percent (7 of 12) from 3 en route to 44 second-half points.
"The second half I thought we did a good job of keeping them out of the lane for the most part," Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said on his post-game show. "They got two lane drives, which wasn't bad, outside of a couple of transition breakdowns we had."
Tennessee dominated early, bolting to a 19-10 lead and taking a 25-18 cushion to halftime. The Vols were up 29-20 when Marshall Henderson nailed three consecutive 3-pointers in a 16-3 explosion that gave Ole Miss a 36-32 lead.
Tennessee clawed back to go up 50-44 on a three-point play by Jarnell Stokes with 7:02 remaining but Henderson went on another one-man rally. The 6-foot-2 guard hit two free throws, a 3 from the key, a 3 from the right side and a 3 from the left wing to spark a 14-3 blitz that gave the Rebels a 58-53 lead with 3:39 to play.
"You want him taking those tough shots; you want to contest them," Martin said of Henderson. "I thought we did a decent job — not a great job of contesting in the second half — but he knocked 'em down."
Jordan McRae nailed a 3-pointer to pull Tennessee within 58-56 with 3:17 to play. McRae and freshman Armani Moore missed two free throws each on the Vols' next two possessions, however, costing the Vols a chance to reclaim the lead. After a free throw by Ole Miss Aaron Jones pushed the lead to 59-56 with one minute left, McRae and Trae Golden missed potential game-tying 3-pointers for Tennessee. Henderson then sealed the outcome with two foul shots that widened the gap to 61-56 with 21 seconds left.
Henderson, who burned Tennessee for 32 points in a 92-74 Ole Miss romp Jan. 9 in Knoxville, finished with 28 points this time. He hit six second-half 3-pointers and scored 24 of his points after intermission.
"He made some big ones," Martin said. "He didn't have such a good first half (0 of 4 field goals, 4 of 4 foul shots) but he came back ready to play. That's a credit to him being locked in."
McRae led Tennessee with 26 points but committed nine of Tennessee's 21 turnovers. Golden came off the bench to contribute 11 points. Stokes, who played a mere 27 minutes before fouling out, managed just 6 points and 4 rebounds.
The Vols won the backboard battle 41-30 but doomed themselves with turnovers and poor shooting. Tennessee hit 40.0 percent (18 of 45) from the field, 20.0 percent (3 of 15) from 3 and 62.9 percent (17 of 27) from the foul line.
Tennessee's inability to make plays and stops down the stretch was eerily reminiscent of earlier road losses at Georgetown (37-36), Virginia (46-38), Alabama (68-65) and Kentucky (75-65).
"We had great chances," Martin said. "Once again, the guys put themselves in position to win but came up short. We missed some key free throws, had some key turnovers down the stretch. We have to give Marshall Henderson credit for making big shots."
Tennessee returns to action Saturday, hosting Alabama at 2 p.m.