Vols defense does it again; rout Missouri 72-45
The Tennessee Vols continued their run of stifling defense and opportunistic offense with a convincing 72-45 win over Missouri that lifted their prospects at the SEC Tournament and their hopes for an NCAA bid.
A boisterous senior day crowd celebrated the final Thompson-Boling Arena appearances of Jordan McRae, Jeronne Maymon, Antonio Barton and D’Montre Edwards. They then celebrated a fourth-straight Vols win, three of them in dominant style.
“This is how you dream for your senior night to go out,” said Jordan McRae. “Definitely don’t want to lose, you want to win, but to win as big as we did and to play defense how we did was great.”
The Vols got rolling on a three-pointer by the poster player for their phoenix-like rise to end the season, Antonio Barton. Extra work helped him rediscover his shot, his shots have helped the Vols rediscover their enthusiasm for the game.
“My confidence level is high right now thanks to my teammates,” said Barton. “They’re finding me, I’m knocking down shots. Just got to continue to work and get better.”
The Vols surprisingly stout stretch run has depended on defense. They forced an early turnover leading to a fast break and McRae threw down a two-handed slam that brought Thompson-Boling Arena to life. It was all downhill for Missouri from there.
“Great crowd tonight,” said head coach Cuonzo Martin. “Great atmosphere. I thought the energy was great to send these seniors out in style.”
For the fifth straight game, UT held an opponent under 25 points in the first half. For the third straight game, they held an opponent under 20 in the opening 20. For the 12th time all year, they led wire-to-wire, and for the 20th time, Tennessee came out a winner.
“These last three games are my first time I’ve had fun just playing defense,” said Stokes.
Missouri shot just 32 percent, turned it over six times and was out-rebounded 23-12 in the first half. They had just two more boards than Jarnell Stokes by intermission, and it got worse from there.
“If you look back at all the games we lost,” McRae said, “we had trouble coming out in the first half, slow coming out, beginning the game slow. I think we have been doing a good job of coming out strong.”
The Vols shot 41 percent, including 6-16 from the three-point arc as they steadily pulled away from the Tigers. The Vols went to the locker room up 37-19.
Missouri opened the second half with a burst and trimmed the lead to 39-25 at the 17:25 mark. The Vols were unfazed and quickly moved ahead by twenty points, leading by 28 midway through the final stanza, and pushing it over 30 later in the game.
Tennessee hasn’t lost since topping Mississippi State on the road on February 26. But the process that got them here started four days earlier with the second heart-wrenching loss to Texas A&M of the season.
“We had a long team meeting after Texas A&M,” said Stokes. “That was the last game we lost, right? I don’t know if that had anything to do with it. It’s defense.”
Stokes led the Vols with 15 points and 10 rebounds. Antonio Barton had 16 points and Jordan McRae 11. Josh Richardson chipped in with nine and Armani Moore had eight.
Tennessee finished 20-11 and 11-7 in SEC play. Did they do enough to earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament?
“I don’t know,” said Martin. “I’m not on that committee, I don’t know what they’re thinking. For us, the most important thing [is] we’ve got a game on Friday.”
The Vols first game will be on Friday afternoon against either Arkansas or the winner of Wednesday’s Auburn-South Carolina game. It will be televised on ESPNU.
If it’s a rematch of the January 22nd game UT won 81-74, it should prove interesting. The Vols and Arkansas are the only SEC schools other than Florida and Kentucky being mentioned as possibilities for the NCAA field.