When Jordan McRae hit a 17-footer and followed with a 3-pointer in the opening minutes of Tuesday night's game with LSU, Tennessee teammate Trae Golden realized two things:
1. This was going to be a big night for McRae
2. This was going to be a long night for the guys guarding him.
Golden was right on both counts. On fire from opening tip to final horn, McRae hit 13 of 18 shots – including 6 of 6 from 3-point range – and scored a career-high 34 points as the Vols thumped the Tigers 82-72 before 15,086 fans at Thompson-Boling Arena.
Golden saw it coming.
“His first shot he hit going toward the corner, kind of fading away,” Golden recalled after the game. “I ran back down the court thinking, 'Oh, yeah. He's hot tonight.' When he's hitting shots like that he's tough to guard. He's 6-feet-6 and he can move, so I knew it was going to be a long night for LSU.”
Interestingly enough, McRae saw it coming, too.
“I get out here before the game to get some shots, and before the game my shots was going in,” he said. “Then my first couple of shots (in the game) went in, and it's always good to see the first couple go in.”
Golden had a strong outing himself, producing 20 points and 8 assists. Once he saw how his former Atlanta Celtics AAU teammate was stroking it, however, he began passing up his shots and force-feeding McRae.
“I've been playing with Jordan since we were 12 or 13 years old, so I kind of know when he gets in that mode, and I give him the ball,” Golden said. “Coach (Cuonzo) Martin was getting mad at me. I was just standing there at halfcourt because I knew he (McRae) was going to make a play.
“I've got to catch myself sometimes and make sure I get in the play just in case he needs somebody to pass it to. When he's got it going like that, there's not too much offense to be run: Just give him the ball and kind of let him do his thing.”
In addition to his 13-for-18 shooting, his 6-for-6 accuracy from 3 and his 34 points, McRae grabbed 6 rebounds and recorded 3 steals. When asked what he thought of his stat line, he smiled sheepishly and replied: “I had three turnovers still. Other than that, it looks pretty good.”
Tennessee needed a huge night from McRae because LSU got a big night from Johnny O'Bryant. The 6-foot-9 sophomore produced 24 points and 8 rebounds before fouling out with 3:21 remaining. He had quite a battle with Tennessee's 6-foot-8 Jarnell Stokes, who finished with 13 points and 11 rebounds – his seventh double-double in the last eight games.
Still, this night belonged to McRae.
That was apparent from the start. He and Golden scored 14 first-half points each in staking the Vols to a 40-30 halftime lead. A McRae 3 from the left corner widened the gap to 43-30 on the first possession of the second half but that would be the biggest lead of the game.
LSU pulled with six points at 51-45 but McRae hit another 3 from the left corner to stall the rally. The Tigers clawed back within six at 66-60 but McRae again buried the clutch shot, nailing yet another 3 from the left corner with 5:28 remaining. That one ignited a stretch which saw him single-handedly outscore LSU 9-5 to keep the Tigers at bay.
Winning its fourth game in a row, Tennessee improves to 15-10 overall and 7-6 in SEC play. The Vols shot a red-hot 57.4 percent from the field, a sizzling 66.7 percent (10 of 15) from 3 and a spectacular 85.7 percent (18 of 21) from the foul line. They committed just 13 turnovers.
LSU slips to 15-9 overall and 6-7 in league play. The Tigers shot 45.6 percent from the field, 33.3 percent (6 of 18) from 3 and 77.8 percent (14 of 18) from the free-throw line. Despite a significant height advantage against Tennessee's four-guard lineup, LSU won the backboard battle by a mere 29-27 margin.
Although McRae has had some excellent games throughout the season, it's obvious that he's much more comfortable and productive playing the wing. With Golden slumping in January and early February, McRae started nine consecutive games at the point. The more taxing role gradually eroded his scoring abilities. His last four starts at the point saw him make just 9 of 38 shots (23.7 percent) and average 9.1 points per game. In the three outings since he returned to the wing, McRae has hit 25 of 43 shots (58.1 percent) and averaged 21.0 points per game.
Asked how much being relieved of the playmaker responsibilities has helped him, McRae flashed a big smile.
“Oh, man, it's big,” he said. “Trae's really the floor general for our team. He makes plays for everybody else. When Trae's playing like he is and Jarnell is playing like he is, I'm getting open shots out there.”
Those open shots were falling Tuesday night. Trae Golden saw it coming. So did Jordan McRae.