The Big Orange limited Missouri to three baskets in its first 13 attempts Saturday at Thompson-Boling Arena, building a 24-9 lead that swelled to 37-19 at halftime, peaked at 70-39 and resulted in a 72-45 romp. The blazing start was remarkably similar to the two previous contests. Tennessee bolted to a 24-6 lead 10 minutes into the Vanderbilt game and romped 76-38, then raced to a 27-5 lead 12 minutes into the Auburn game en route to an 82-54 blowout.
Tennessee has limited its last three opponents to an average of 45.7 points per game, while winning by an average of 31 per game. Counting their win at Mississippi State on Feb. 26, the Vols have not trailed in their last four games, a span of 160 minutes.
Saturday's win concludes Tennessee's regular season at 20-11 overall and 11-7 in SEC play. Missouri closes 21-10 and 9-9. The lopsided margin may have earned the Vols an NCAA Tournament bid while simultaneously costing the Tigers one.
Asked if he thinks his team is in The Dance, Tennessee head coach Cuonzo Martin said, "Oh, yes," although he qualified a bit by noting that "most important is the game on Friday (in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals)."
Jeronne Maymon, one of four seniors honored in pre-game ceremonies, also believes the Vols have done enough to earn an NCAA Tournament bid.
"Most definitely," he said. "I definitely think we can go out there and compete with the best of ‘em. When we play our best basketball we're probably as good as anybody in America."
Junior post Jarnell Stokes believes the Vols sent a message to the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee with their dominating play the past three games.
"We should have," he said. "I definitely feel like we're one of those teams that can go into the Tournament and do damage."
Saturday's game was supposed to be competitive, with both Missouri and Tennessee battling for NCAA Tournament bids. If the Vols felt any pressure they alleviated it with their blazing start.
"I think we were just cool, calm and collected to start the game out," Maymon said. "We really don't rah-rah before a game, like we used to. I really don't know why but I guess it's working for us."
Still, fellow senior Jordan McRae thought the fast start relieved some pressure and helped the Vols relax.
"If you look back at the games we lost and the teams we had trouble with, we were coming out the first half slow," he said." I think we definitely have been doing a good job (lately) of coming out strong."
In addition to the pressure of battling for an NCAA Tournament bid, the Vols have been battling to solidify Martin's job status. With the Big Orange in danger of missing The Dance a third year in succession some fans are pushing for a change in leadership. Asked if the team is looking to win for its coach, Maymon nodded.
"Most definitely," he said. "We obviously want to take some of this off our coach because it's not his fault for us to go out there and lose games. He hasn't taken a shot this whole season. We want to go out there and kind of stand up for him, play as hard as we can for him…. When somebody has your back, you've got to make sure you have theirs. That's what loyalty is."
For the second game in a row the Vols' Josh Richardson shut down the SEC scoring leader. After limiting Auburn's Chris Denson to 3 points Wednesday night on 1-for-10 shooting, Richardson held Missouri's Jabari Brown to 8 points on 1-for-10 shooting.
"We've been keying in on guys' best players, not letting ‘em get off," McRae said. "I think this is Jabari's first time not getting to 10 points."
While Richardson led the defense, Antonio Barton sparked the offense. The senior point guard nailed a 3-pointer to open the scoring and hit another as the lead swelled to 24-9. Another Barton trey pushed the advantage to 31-15. He finished 4 of 7 from 3 and 6 of 12 overall en route to a game-high 16 points. Stokes chipped in 15 points and 10 rebounds, registering his 18th double-double of the season. McRae added 11 points. Maymon grabbed 10 rebounds in helping the Vols register a 45-28 backboard bulge.
Jordan Clarkson (13) was the only double-figure scorer for Missouri, which shot just 31.9 percent (15 of 47) from the field and 11.8 percent (2 of 17) from beyond the arc.
McRae, the Vols' most emotional player, clearly is relieved to see Tennessee playing so well in March. When asked if he likes where the team is heading into the SEC Tournament, he flashed an incredulous look.
"Of course," he said. "What's not to like?"