Tennessee’s NCAA Tournament hopes are still flickering … mostly because senior wing Jordan McRae was on fire Wednesday night in Starkville.
McRae sank 9 of 19 field goals and 7 of 8 foul shots en route to a 29-point, 10-rebound, 4-assist outing that fueled a 75-68 defeat of Mississippi State. The double-double was only the second of his four-year career. The other (14 points, 11 rebounds) came last season at Vanderbilt.
With Bulldog defenders smothering 6-foot-8, 260-pound Vol posts Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon in the second half, McRae scored 17 of his points after intermission as Tennessee withstood a series of Mississippi State rallies.
“When Jeronne or Jarnell comes to me and tells me I have to score for us, I have to,” McRae said on the post-game show, laughing as he added: “I don’t think anybody wants to get in trouble with those two.”
With the Dogs collapsing inside, Tennessee got a lot of open looks from 3-point range. McRae hit 4 of 8 attempts. The rest of the Vols combined to sink just 2 of 13.
Head coach Cuonzo Martin thought McRae’s performance was one of his best all season.
“I thought he played well,” the coach said. “Sometimes when he scores the basketball it seems like his flow wasn’t there. I thought he did a good job scoring the basketball, being aggressive, and he got 10 rebounds. That was big. I thought he stepped up and really put us on his back when we needed to get some baskets.”
Stokes added 14 points and 9 rebounds for the Vols, while Maymon chipped in 10 points and 11 rebounds. Armani Moore provided a spark off the bench, contributing 8 points, 4 rebounds and 3 steals in 19 productive minutes.
A lineup change saw senior Antonio Barton reclaim the starting job at point guard, with freshman Darius Thompson returning to the sixth-man role. Barton was just 1 of 6 from the field but contributed 4 assists.
“I thought he did a great job of running the team,” Martin said. “I thought he was our best guy the first half at talking on defense. I could really hear him.”
Thompson made his only shot, a 3-pointer, and contributed an assist in 12 backup minutes. He and Barton combined for 40 minutes at the point without committing a turnover.
A 3-pointer by McRae gave Tennessee its biggest lead at 14 points (33-19) en route to a 35-24 halftime lead. The gap would’ve been wider except for nine first-half turnovers. Most were either committed by Stokes due to double-team pressure or by Vol teammates attempting to force the ball through traffic to Stokes.
“I thought we did a great job of trying to get the ball to Jarnell in the first half,” Martin said, “but I thought we were pressing and forcing some passes … which is a good thing. But we’ve got to do a better job if it (entry pass) is not there of moving the ball…. Most of the turnovers were probably trying to get the ball to Jarnell.”
The Vols saw their lead whittled to four (43-39) five minutes into the second half. McRae hit a reverse layup and a 3-pointer to slow the rally but the Bulldogs crept back within four (54-50) with 10:15 to go.
McRae rammed home back-to-back dunks as the lead swelled to 60-50 but State whittled the gap to four yet again at 67-63 with 2:15 remaining. McRae came to the rescue one final time, sinking four foul shots down the stretch to help Tennessee hang on for the victory.
The Vols, now 17-11 overall and 8-7 in SEC play, shot a mediocre 39.4 percent (26 of 66) from the field and 28.6 percent (6 of 21) from 3. They nailed 85.0 percent (17 of 20) from the foul line, however, and won the backboards 43-35. Maymon played a key role as Tennessee grabbed 17 offensive rebounds.
“I thought he did a great job of keeping balls alive,” Martin said. “He’s a physical guy and he’s very intelligent on the basketball floor. If Jarnell would miss he’d get it on the other (weak) side. He did a tremendous job of getting that thing back out because both of those guys (Maymon and Stokes) had two or three guys around them all night.”
Roquez Johnson scored 19 points and Fred Thomas 18 for Mississippi State, which stands 13-15 overall and 3-12 in league play after dropping its 10th game in a row.
Although the win was far from impressive, it was downright critical for the Vols. A loss to the Bulldogs would have killed any faint hopes Tennessee might have entertained of getting an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.
After noting that the Vols “played well in spurts,” Martin added, “We just made enough plays to win the game.”
Tennessee hosts Vanderbilt Saturday at noon. Dale Ellis’ jersey will be retired in pre-game ceremonies.