Tennessee’s inability to make the key plays and key stops in the final minutes cost the Vols yet again Saturday afternoon at Missouri.
Tied at 62 with 5:41 left, the homestanding Tigers outscored the visiting Vols 13-8 down the stretch to prevail 75-70. This came just four days after Florida outscored Tennessee 12-4 in the final four minutes to win 67-58 Tuesday in Knoxville.
Counting earlier losses to Xavier (67-63), UTEP (78-70), Wichita State (70-61), North Carolina State (65-58), Texas A&M (58-57), Kentucky (74-66) and Vanderbilt (64-60), the Big Orange has dropped nine games this season it had a chance to win entering the last five minutes. By comparison, Tennessee’s only single-digit wins this season came against South Carolina Upstate (74-65) and Arkansas (81-74).
Speaking on the post-game show, Vol head man Cuonzo Martin conceded that the Tigers simply made more clutch plays at crunch time.
“They did a good job,” he said. “I thought we did a tremendous job in guarding (Jordan) Clarkson, and he made two big-time pull-ups to keep his team ahead. And I thought (Jabari) Brown did a great job of really attacking, keeping the dribble alive, making plays and getting to the rim.”
As was the case in Tennessee’s earlier single-digit losses, much of the damage in this game was self-inflicted.
Down just 66-65 inside four minutes, the Vols allowed Brown to score on a drive and Clarkson on a 10-footer from the lane as the Tigers pulled in front 70-65 with 2:12 remaining. Antonio Barton and Jordan McRae then missed 3-point tries for Tennessee. The Vols got another chance to cut into the lead but McRae was whistled for charging.
After a free throw by Missouri’s Earnest Ross widened the gap to 71-65, Tennessee’s Josh Richardson was fouled on a 3-point try. He came through in the clutch, nailing all three free throws to narrow the gap to 71-68. Tennessee forced a turnover on the Tigers’ ensuing possession but had to take its final timeout when it couldn’t inbound the ball in the allotted five seconds. This would come back to haunt the Vols.
Richardson sank two more clutch foul shots, trimming the deficit to 71-70 with 18.1 seconds left, but Brown answered with two free throws for Missouri, pushing the lead to 73-70 with 15.2 seconds left.
McRae missed a potential game-tying 3-pointer from the key but Missouri lost the long rebound out of bounds, giving Tennessee one final opportunity to tie the score with 7.7 seconds left.
With the ball out of bounds at sidecourt near its own bench, Tennessee again failed to get anyone open to receive the inbounds pass. Since the Vols already used their final timeout, inbounder Jeronne Maymon had no choice but to try and squeeze a pass in to McRae, who was blanketed along the left sideline. The pass was deflected by Brown and wound up in the hands of Johnathan Williams, a 6-foot-9 freshman from Memphis who Tennessee unsuccessfully recruited. Williams secured the win and the final margin by sinking a pair of foul shots with 4.3 seconds remaining.
Martin said the ill-fated inbounds pass came off of “a play where Jordan has two guys screening for him and Josh fades out to the opposite side. If those looks weren’t there you go right inside to Jarnell (Stokes), who can score quick or hit one of those perimeter guys for a 3-point shot.”
McRae hit 10 of 23 shots from the field, 3 of 11 from 3 and 8 of 8 from the foul line in producing 31 points for the Vols, now 15-10 overall and 6-6 in SEC play. Richardson added 16 points and Stokes 13 – with only two of those coming after halftime. Brown scored 24 points to pace Missouri, now 18-7 overall and also 6-6 in SEC play.
The Tigers came out smoking, hitting eight of their first nine field goal tries (including three of three 3-pointers) in racing to a 24-11 lead nine minutes into the game. Brown scored 11 of Missouri’s first 24 points but Tennessee switched McRae off of him and Richardson on to him at this point. Brown went nearly 22 minutes before scoring his next basket.
“I thought Josh did a great job of defending him,” Martin said. “He did a great job of keeping him in front of him and keeping the ball out of his right hand. He and Clarkson like to go right and attack the rim, and I thought Josh did a great job of really battling, forcing him into his ball screens and forcing him to take tough shots.”
With Brown quieted, Tennessee made a 13-4 spurt fueled by McRae that trimmed the gap to 28-24. Missouri led 41-37 at halftime but the Vols took their first lead since 5-4 on a Stokes layup that produced a 42-41 advantage with 17:42 remaining. The lead then seesawed until Missouri made its finishing kick in the final four minutes.
Tennessee shot 40 percent (22 of 55) from the field and a chilly 19.0 percent (4 of 21) from behind the arc. The Vols were a solid 75.9 percent (22 of 29) from the foul line. Missouri cooled after its 8-for-9 start but still shot 56.5 percent (26 of 46) from the field and 60 percent (3 of 5) from beyond the arc. The Tigers canned 76.9 percent (20 of 26) from the free-throw line.
Tennessee won the backboards 34-28. Each team committed 11 turnovers.
The Vols will try to get back on track Tuesday in Thompson-Boling Arena, hosting Georgia at 9 p.m.