Tennessee’s recent struggles in the SEC Tournament have been well documented. Entering Bridgestone Arena with a NCAA Tournament bid on life support, the Vols couldn't afford another brief appearance.
Thursday’s win won’t secure anything, but it’s a start.
The fifth-seeded Vols cruised to a 69-53 victory in their SEC Tournament opener over 13-seed Mississippi State at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn., setting up a Friday affair against fellow bubble-dweller Alabama.
The talent gap between the Vols and Bulldogs was obvious from the opening tip, but Jarnell Stokes and his teammates let their opponent hang around late in the game. It indicated a glaring weakness for the sophomore forward.
“We were up 15, and we just have to develop a killer instinct to get up by 25,” Stokes said. “We went out and competed, but just didn’t defend at a high level in the last 10 minutes of the game.”
Tennessee’s first-team All-SEC guard Jordan McRae led the team with 17 points, including a scintillating 360-dunk in the closing minutes. The highlight-reel jam should put the Vols' (20-11) quiet victory on SportsCenter, but will reaching the 20-win plateau secure a tournament berth?
“It’s something we’re not thinking about right now,” said Trae Golden, who finished with 15 points. “We’re only thinking about winning a SEC championship right now.”
Golden’s coach wasn’t as deflective of the looming decision.
“I said after we beat Mizzou that we’re an NCAA Tournament team,” Martin said.
The Vols had success shooting the ball Thursday, posting a 51.8 percentage from the field. A rare contributor to that success was freshman Quinton Chievous, who scored a career-high 10 points on 5-for-8 shooting.
Chievous went through a stretch earlier in the season of not getting playing time, but Martin pointed out why he’s seeing the floor much more as of late.
“We’re talking about a guy who’s consumed with getting better,” Martin said. “To his credit, he stayed locked in and wanted to be a better ball palyer, so that’s why he’s playing.”
The Bulldogs came into Thursday’s contest at a disadvantage, as injuries have reduced their roster to six scholarship players. Mississippi State head coach Rick Ray was quick to notice the difference in physicality between the two squads.
“The one thing you come away with is how physical they are,” Ray said. “Any time you’re around the basketball, they really put their body into you and make it hard to score and finish inside.”
The Vols trailed early on, 4-0, but that was the only deficit they’d face all game. A 12-0 run from Tennessee quickly erased the Bulldogs’ lead and the Vols were up as many as 19 points late in the first half and went into the locker room with a 35-19 advantage.
The Bulldogs, who shot less than 30 percent in the first half, climbed back within 10 points with six minutes remaining. But the Vols tightened up on defense and kept Mississippi State at bay.
Up next for the Vols is the fourth-seeded Alabama Crimson Tide. They split the season series, but with both teams on the bubble, Friday’s contest could serve as some sort of a NCAA play-in game.
Martin didn’t hesitate when he was asked about the biggest key to toppling the Tide, reminding everyone of a huge factor in the January road loss to Anthony Grant’s squad.
“Taking care of the basketball,” Martin said. “Being strong, getting it across half court.”
“They have one of the best four-guard lineups in the country and Trevor Releford is one of the best guards in America. They have the parts to be successful. They defend they play hard and they’re well coached, so we know it’ll be a fight.”
The Vols and Crimson Tide will face off Friday at 3:30 p.m. ET in the quarterfinals.