NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee’s players and coaches didn’t have any pregame discussions about avoiding the fate that befell them at last year’s Southeastern Conference tournament.
There was no need.
“We didn’t have to say it,” Tennessee guard Jordan McRae said Thursday after the fifth-seeded Volunteers’ 69-53 SEC tournament second-round victory over No. 13 seed Mississippi State. “I think everybody really knows what we have to do. I think we did a good job of really coming out there and playing hard.”
McRae scored 17 points as the fifth-seeded Volunteers (20-11) won for the ninth time in their last 10 games. Tennessee won eight of its last last nine regular-season games last year before losing 77-72 to Mississippi in its first SEC tournament game. That early exit led to an NIT appearance, ending Tennessee’s string of six consecutive NCAA tournament invitations.
By surviving their first SEC tournament game this year, the Vols improved their NCAA hopes and advanced to a Friday quarterfinal against No. 4 seed Alabama (19-11) in a matchup of bubble teams.
After the Vols closed the regular season with a 64-62 victory over Missouri, Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said he believed his team had done enough to secure an NCAA bid. He reiterated those comments after Thursday’s game.
He has a believer in Mississippi State coach Rick Ray, who worked alongside Martin when both were Purdue assistants from 2006-08.
“I thought Tennessee was an NCAA tournament team before we played them, and I definitely think that now,” Ray said. “I don’t think they needed this win to validate them being an NCAA tournament team.”
Trae Golden had 15 points and Jarnell Stokes and Quinton Chievous added 10 points apiece for Tennessee. Chievous’ 10 points represented a career high for the redshirt freshman.
Craig Sword scored 19 points, Colin Borchert had 12 and Trivante Bloodman added 10 for Mississippi State (10-22).
Golden passed up an opportunity after the game to discuss his team’s NCAA hopes.
“That’s something we’re not thinking about,” Golden said. “We’re in the SEC tournament trying to make sure we get an SEC championship. All we thought about was Mississippi State. Now our focus is on Alabama.”
They’re hoping they made enough of a case on the floor.
Mississippi State scored the first four points of the game, but Tennessee answered with a 12-0 run and never looked back. The short-handed Bulldogs were feeling the effects of playing their second game in as many days.
The Bulldogs entered the SEC tournament with just six scholarship players after four members of its roster had season-ending injuries. Junior guard Jalen Steele and freshman guards Andre Applewhite and Jacoby Davis tore anterior cruciate ligaments. Senior forward Wendell Lewis fractured a right patella tendon.
“I’m really looking forward to coaching these young men in the offseason and seeing what we can do with 13 scholarship players instead of six,” Ray said.
Mississippi State still managed to beat South Carolina 70-59 on Wednesday by outworking the Gamecocks and going 7 of 15 on 3-point attempts. The Bulldogs shot just 34.5 percent overall (20 of 58) and 21.4 percent from 3-point range (3 of 14) against Tennessee.
Even though Mississippi State fought to make a game of it in the second half, the Bulldogs never made a serious threat.
McRae sank a 3-pointer and converted a steal into a conventional three-point play to start the 12-0 run that helped the Vols take control. Tennessee went on a 14-2 spurt later in the first half to lead by as many as 19. That 14-2 run culminated with a Chievous dunk.
After totaling 32 points in Tennessee’s first 29 games, Chievous has 17 points over his last two contests. Chievous, the son of Missouri all-time leading scorer and former first-round draft pick Derrick Chievous, had seven points Saturday against his father’s old team.
“I was frustrated at first, but I knew I always had to stay ready when my time came,” Chievous said. “I feel I’m doing that now.”
Mississippi State played much better in the second half while Tennessee coasted and got careless with the ball. The Bulldogs chipped away at the lead, and Sword’s free throw made it 58-49 with 4:43 remaining.
“That’s something we have to develop, as far as a killer instinct. … That would make us a better team,” Stokes said. “We went out and competed, but we didn’t defend at a high level the last 10 minutes of the game.”
Once the lead got into single digits, Tennessee broke out of its second-half funk.
After Sword’s free throw, McRae drove to the basket and scored while drawing a foul. Although he missed the ensuing free throw, Stokes tipped in the offensive rebound to extend Tennessee’s lead to 62-49.
The lead wouldn’t drop below 11 again, as McRae provided some late excitement by doing a 360 on a game-clinching dunk with 1:26 left.
“I wasn’t really thinking about it,” McRae said. “I don’t know what made me do it. I just did it.”