With star players Jordan McRae (six minutes) and Jarnell Stokes (seven) limited by foul trouble, Tennessee was happy to be leading Texas A&M 32-18 at halftime Saturday at Thompson-Boling Arena.
Too happy, perhaps.
When the Vols opened the second half with a lull, the visiting Aggies seized the momentum and rallied to win 57-56 on an unlikely 3-pointer by Antwan Space with 4 seconds left. How unlikely? Space was 2 for 16 on 3-point tries entering Saturday’s game but went 2 for 2 against the Vols.
The final score was the Aggies’ first lead since 3-0. Being in control for 39 minutes only to let the game slip away in the waning seconds was tough for the Vols to swallow.
“It pains you more … the harder ones to get over,” senior post Jeronne Maymon said. “But you can’t dwell on it.”
A&M iimproves to 11-4 overall and 2-0 in SEC play. Tennessee slips to 10-5 and 1-1 heading into Wednesday’s game with visiting Auburn.
Basically, Tennessee gave this one away by failing to show up for the start of the second half. After limiting A&M to 25-percent shooting (6 of 24) in the first 20 minutes, the Vols allowed the Aggies to shoot 53.8 percent (14 of 26) after the break, including 6 of 10 from 3-point range.
“I feel as though we got too lackadaisical, got too comfortable, thinking they was going to lay down,” said point guard Antonio Barton, who led Tennessee with 12 points. “But a team like that, they’re going to fight, and they fought their way back.”
Maymon agreed that the Vols, flying high on a four-game winning streak entering Saturday’s action, got complacent after building their halftime cushion.
“You can never get too full of yourself when you’re winning games,” he said. “I guess this was kind of a humbling experience.”
Basically, five minutes of bad play at the start of the second half negated 20 minutes of good play in the first half.
“I think they got the momentum coming out,” said Josh Richardson, who added 11 points for Tennessee. “We came out a little flat, and they capitalized.”
Jamal Jones was pretty much a one-man show for A&M. After going 1 for 7 from the field in the first half, he caught fire at the start of the second. He nailed three 3-pointers and an 18-footer to ignite a 17-6 rally that whittled the 14-point halftime deficit to 38-35. Minutes later he hit a short jumper that narrowed the gap to two (50-48) with 3:57 remaining.
Stokes assisted Maymon for a layup and Richardson drained a 17-footer as the Vols surged ahead 54-48 with 2:21 to play but the Big Orange faltered down the stretch. Jones hit another 3-pointer, then added a foul shot as A&M closed to 54-52. Barton made a pair of clutch free throws for a 56-52 lead with 36.9 seconds left but the Aggies’ Alex Caruso scored on a too-easy drive, trimming the gap to 56-54 with 31 seconds remaining.
What followed was the biggest and most controversial play of the game. When McRae and an Aggie defender collided in backcourt, McRae was whistled for “hooking” with his elbow to get around the opposing player. It was McRae’s third offensive foul of the game and fourth overall. Instead of him shooting two free throws to seal the win, A&M got the ball with 28 seconds left.
Tennessee appeared to get a reprieve when Caruso missed two free throws with 17 seconds left but Maymon was fouled on the rebound and promptly missed two of his own. That set up Space’s dramatic 3-point game-winner.
Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin was understandably somber after the game, calling this a “tough, painful loss.” He blamed the setback on the fact his team was “stagnant offensively” and “didn’t get the stops we needed defensively” after intermission.
Although the Vol coach carefully avoided criticizing the officials, he noted a rash of offensive fouls (particularly illegal screens) called on Tennessee.
“I think that’s the first time all year we’ve been called for that many offensive fouls,” he said. “I thought it was strange. I thought it was a little uncharacteristic because our guys are normally solid setting screens.”
Maymon was a little more forceful, noting that the Vols “were not as aggressive because of all the foul calls and everything like that. We tried to adjust but we can’t let how the game’s being called dictate how we play.”
Since Tennessee built a 14-point halftime lead with virtually no help from Stokes and McRae, the Vols appeared likely to pull away once the two stars returned to action in the second half. Not so. McRae matched his season low with 9 points and Stokes posted 6, all in the game’s opening four minutes.
Martin said he thought the early fouls kept his two stars from “getting in a rhythm, getting in the flow of the game.”
The same could not be said of Jamal Jones. The Aggie standout found his rhythm after the break, going 7 of 12 from the field, including 4 of 7 from behind the arc. He scored 20 of his 23 points after intermission.
Maymon was a horse on the backboards, peeling 15 rebounds, but he struggled offensively. He was just 3 of 8 from the field and 3 of 7 from the foul line.
“I was getting good looks,” he said. “I was just missing layups. It definitely could’ve lifted us (if he had shot better). I missed two bunnies (point-blank shots) that would’ve put us at arm’s distance, then I missed the two free throws (with 17 seconds left).
“That’s what’s really frustrating about that game for me personally.”