It would be an exaggeration to say “As Jordan McRae goes, Tennessee goes,” but only a slight exaggeration. Case in point: Saturday’s 72-53 defeat of South Carolina at Thompson-Boling Arena.
McRae got off to a torrid start, and so did the Vols.
The 6-foot-6 senior wing hit a driving six-foot bank shot and a five-foot floater, then assisted Armani Moore for a layup as Tennessee raced to a 16-2 lead. When the Gamecocks closed to 18-9, McRae drained a 3-pointer from the left corner, one from the left wing and one from the right wing – single-handedly accounting for nine Vol points in a 10-4 spurt that widened the gap to 28-13.
“When my first shot went in I felt good,” he said after the game. “If I hit my first shot, I’m going to shoot a second one. If I hit the second one … you know? If I hit the third one, I’m in there (zone) now.”
McRae made his fourth consecutive 3-pointer as the lead swelled to 38-17, missed one, then hit his fifth of the half (in six attempts) with four seconds left to give the Vols a 45-22 bulge at the break. Former Tennessee football player and coach John Majors left his front-row seat at this point and headed for the nearest exit. He was right; McRae shot the Gamecocks right out of the game in the first 20 minutes.
The slender senior attempted just three shots in the second half, finishing the contest with 24 points after going 8 of 14 from the field, 6 of 8 from 3 and 2 of 4 from the foul line. He also contributed 3 assists, a block and a steal.
Saturday’s game was just the latest example of the correlation between McRae’s performance and Tennessee’s outcome. Consider the previous four games: He went 1 for 15 from the field in a 67-41 humiliation at Florida. He bounced back to go 9 for 20 in an 86-70 thumping of Ole Miss and 8 of 14 in a 76-59 win at Alabama. He struggled through a 6-of-18 performance Wednesday at Vanderbilt, however, and Tennessee came out on the short end of a 64-60 score. He was back on his game Saturday and – lo and behold – so were the Vols.
So, how dependent is this Tennessee team on McRae hitting a few shots early and getting on a roll?
“I think it’s dependent on all three of those guys – Jordan, Jeronne (Maymon) and Jarnell (Stokes),” head coach Cuonzo Martin said. “Those three guys have to play well in order for us to be successful. But when he’s making shots from the perimeter it loosens things up for those guys on the interior.”
No doubt about it. McRae’s 3-point bombs softened South Carolina’s defense for Stokes (6 of 11, 17 points) and Maymon (5 of 7, 10 points).
“I think it’s the same for Jordan and (fellow wing) Josh (Richardson),” Martin said. “If those guys can make perimeter shots consistently and keep those (defenders) from hovering around the paint, then we’ll be all right.”
Tennessee fans got a glance at what the lineup looks like without McRae, Stokes and Maymon midway through the second half, and it was not a pretty sight. Their rest coincided with a 17-6 South Carolina spurt that whittled a 48-24 deficit to 54-41. Martin called timeout and re-inserted his Big Three at this point. Moore and McRae immediately drained 3-pointers, then Maymon scored in transition to cap an 8-0 run that pushed the lead to 62-41 and restored order.
Moore, best known for his hustle and defense, showed some offense in this game, finishing 4 of 6 from the field, including 1 of 2 from 3-point range. In addition to nine points, he contributed 3 rebounds and a steal in 17 quality relief minutes.
“He’s one of those guys that you like having on the floor all the time,” Martin said after watching his team improve to 15-8 overall and 6-4 in SEC play. “It (playing time) just depends on the game plan but I have to do a better job as a coach of getting him on the floor as much as possible.”
Freshman Sindarius Thornwell scored 15 points for South Carolina, which slips to 8-15 overall and 1-9 in SEC action after losing to Tennessee for the 13th time in a row over the past six years.
Coming off Wednesday’s loss at Vanderbilt, Saturday’s win gives Tennessee a 6-1 record in games following a setback. There’s got to be a message there somewhere.
“We’ve been bouncing back from losses all year,” McRae said. “We just need better carry-over – take one win to two wins to a third win. We haven’t done a good job of doing that.”
Tennessee might be able to put together a nice string of wins if McRae could put together a nice string of strong outings. It isn’t strictly a case of “As McRae goes, Tennessee goes,” but there’s definitely a correlation there.