Down 50-42 with less than nine minutes left and a NCAA Tournament bid slipping away, the Tennessee Vols huddled around head coach Cuonzo Martin, facing their largest lead of the night.
“We have to make a decision right here,” Martin told his players. “We have to start building off stops. It can’t be a back-and-forth game.”
That’s just what they did.
Sparked by a defensively-dominant 18-3 run and Jordan McRae’s late arrival to the scoring column, the Vols secured a 64-62 victory over the Missouri Tigers on Senior Day in Thompson-Boling Arena.
After the win, Martin had no problem saying his team belongs in the field of 68.
“I think we’re an NCAA tournament team,” Martin said. “We’re one of those 68 teams. You have to do your job, but our job is done.”
After a month of being arguably the most dominant player in college basketball, McRae started just 1-for-7 from the field and didn’t convert a field goal until 14:33 of the second half. He also turned the ball over five times. But the Vols’ pure scorer finished with 15 points, including 10 during Tennessee’s late 18-3 run.
“McRae kept us composed,” Martin said. “I thought he rushed us a little bit in the first half. He just settled down and let the defense come to him.” “He went from being a role player to an elite player – the SEC Player of the Year, in my opinion.”
Unselfishly, McRae didn’t echo his coach’s ringing endorsement. But he doesn’t question the validity in it.
“I don’t feel like he wants me to be Player of the Year just because I’m his guy,” McRae said. “I feel like he really thinks I deserve it.”
Sophomore forward Jarnell Stokes finished with his 14th double-double of the season with 13 points and 13 rebounds. He grabbed six of Tennessee’s 18 offensive rebounds Saturday to help the Vols garner a 45-32 rebounding edge over the Tigers.
“Rebounding is toughness, so let’s see who’s the toughest,” Martin said of the two teams who rank atop the SEC in rebounding margin.
Freshman Quinton Chievous notched career-highs in points (7), rebounds (5) and assists (2) all in the first half against Missouri, where his father is the all-time leading scorer.
The Vols finished the regular season as the last team in the tournament field of 68 according to Joe Lunardi’s ‘ESPN Bracketology’. But Stokes and his teammates aren’t hanging their hat on that estimation.
“There’s still work to do, regardless of what’s on Bracketology,” Stokes said.
Tennessee secured the five-seed in the upcoming SEC Tournament in Nashville, Tenn. After an overtime loss last year in their tournament opener to Ole Miss that ensured they wouldn’t make the Big Dance, Stokes thinks they’ll be hungry to make a statement this weekend.
“We know we have to do damage in the SEC Tournament,” Stokes said. “We’re not going to let another one slip away like we did last year.” The Vols will play Thursday at 3:30 p.m. ET in Bridgestone Arena against the winner of Wednesday's Mississippi State-South Carolina matchup.