Tennessee's first SEC meeting with new league member Texas A&M turned out to be a game and a half. Literally.
Playing the first four-overtime contest in program history, the Vols had to go 60 minutes, instead of the usual 40. Trae Golden took control down the stretch, however, and carried the Big Orange to a 93-85 victory Saturday at College Station.
Speaking on the post-game show, Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin praised his team for showing "a tremendous level of mental toughness and physical toughness. They competed from start to finish. They got off to a slow start but I thought our guys did a great job of battling and never giving up."
That was especially true of Golden. After producing 17 points in regulation, the junior point guard put the team on his back and scored 15 of Tennessee's 31 overtime points. Making 11 of 12 foul shots, he finished with a career-high 32 points, 6 rebounds and 4 assists while playing a grueling 56 minutes. His previous career high for minutes was 42 against Memphis in December of 2011.
"I don't think Trae Golden could've made it through a game like this last season," Martin said. "Fifty-six minutes the way he played from start to finish is a tremendous effort. You've got to give him credit for being mentally tough but also give (conditioning coach) Nicodemus (Christopher) credit for keeping those guys physically locked in."
Jordan McRae, who also played 56 minutes, added 23 points for the Vols. His clutch 3-pointer in the final seconds of the first overtime extended the game to a second extra period.
Sophomore post Jarnell Stokes contributed 20 points, 16 rebounds and 4 blocks in 53 minutes. He now has eight double-doubles in his last nine outings and nine in his last 11 contests.
Skylar McBee, who scored 12 points in 48 relief minutes, was the game's unsung hero. After Aggie standout Elston Turner made 11 of his first 14 shots, McBee helped slow him down. Turner finished with 38 points but made just 5 of his final 19 field-goal attempts. McBee also grabbed a career-high 7 rebounds.
A&M smothered Stokes for much of the game, daring Tennessee to launch from outside. The Vols obliged, hitting 10 of 21 attempts from 3-point range. McBee was 3 of 4 beyond the arc, McRae 3 of 6 and Golden 3 of 7.
"They've got big, physical guys down around the rim," Martin noted of the Aggies. "We had to make some 3-points shots in order to loosen those guys off Jarnell around the rim."
Winning its fifth game in a row, Tennessee now stands 16-10 overall and 8-6 in SEC play. The Vols shot just 39.4 percent (28 of 71) from the field but outrebounded the Aggies 53-42. A&M slips to 16-11 and 6-8 after shooting 42.3 percent from the field and 27.3 percent (3 of 11) from 3.
Tennessee's winning streak appeared to be in serious peril when the Vols missed their first eight field-goal tries and fell behind 8-0. McRae hit a 10-footer but the Vols trailed 11-2 after starting 1 for 10 from the field and 0 for 2 from the foul line.
Tennessee's defense was stout enough to keep A&M within reach but the Vols never led in a first half that ended with the Aggies on top 31-28. The Big Orange was most fortunate to be down by just three points, given that A&M out-shot Tennessee 53.8 percent (14 of 26) to 32.1 percent (9 of 28) and outrebounded the Vols 21-14 in the first 20 minutes.
Tennessee took its first lead of the game at 34-33 on a 3-pointer by McBee with 18:22 to play. A layup by Stokes bumped the lead to 36-33 moments later. Turner scored nine consecutive A&M points, however, as the Aggies moved ahead 46-43. Two Turner free throws put A&M on top 50-45 with 8:23 remaining.
Golden scored six points in a 10-4 Tennessee spurt that produced a 55-54 lead with 4:52 left, and the lead seesawed thereafter. Stokes hit the first of two free throws with 5.9 seconds left in regulation to send the game into overtime tied 62-62.
Down 68-64 with 25 seconds left in the first overtime, Tennessee appeared in dire straits. Golden scored on a drive with 18.1 seconds left to start another rally, however. J'Mychal Reese hit a free throw for A&M but McRae bombed in a game-tying 3 from 24 feet with 7.9 seconds left.
The Aggies built another four-point lead (73-69) in the second overtime but Tennessee again rallied to tie. A 3-pointer by Golden trimmed the deficit to 73-72. After an A&M basket widened the gap to 75-72, Stokes made a free throw, then Golden hit a 5-footer from in front with 17.9 seconds left to tie the score. Josh Richardson then blocked a potential game-winning 16-footer by Turner at the buzzer.
Overtime No. 3 saw the Vols take a 79-77 lead on a Stokes' tip-in. He subsquently missed a pair of free throws with 42.4 seconds left, however, and A&M's Jarod Jahns tied the score at 79 on a putback. Golden was stripped on a drive to the basket but A&M's Reese missed a running 3-pointer at the buzzer.
Heading into the fourth overtime, Martin instructed his guards to stop driving all the way to the basket.
"In the last overtime I told the guys, 'When you get in the lane, just shoot the pull-up. It's there. You can't go any deeper than that or they'll take charges,'" Martin recalled. "I thought the last overtime they did a great job of going up and shooting over guys."
Sure enough, a pull-up 8-footer by McRae gave Tennessee a quick 81-79 lead in the fourth overtime. After an Aggie free throw, Golden made a pull-up 10-footer and a 15-footer as Tennessee took its biggest lead of the game at 85-80 with 1:56 remaining. McBee added a 3-pointer and two free throws, pushing the lead to 90-80 with 52 seconds left and sealing the win.
Tennessee's coach thought McBee's contribution was crucial.
"He did a better job than Josh (Richardson) defensively," Martin said of the player who started out guarding Turner. "Josh let him get his head up early in the game. I thought Skylar did a great job of wreaking havoc on him, making him take tough shots and making him take the extra dribble."
The Vols return to action Tuesday, hosting No. 5 Florida (22-4 overall, 12-2 SEC) at 9 p.m.