No. 16 Tennessee needs win at Mississippi State to keep pace

No. 16 Tennessee, still in contention for the SEC regular-season title, heads to red-hot Mississippi State on Tuesday.

Tennessee (21-7, 11-5 SEC) has won two in a row and trails first-place Auburn by one game. The Volunteers are coming off a 73-65 win at Ole Miss on Saturday and will have their hands full with the surging Bulldogs.

Mississippi State (21-8, 9-8) has won three in a row and seven of nine overall to vault into third place in the SEC standings. The Bulldogs survived a stern test from South Carolina and pulled out a 72-68 overtime win over the Gamecocks.

“That was a gut-check win against a hard-nosed team,” Mississippi State coach Ben Howland said in the postgame press conference.

Lamar Peters scored 19 points, five coming in overtime, to help the Bulldogs prevail and take a step closer to an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament.

“We didn’t want to lose,” Peters told reporters. “We’re trying to make this run for the tournament.”

Mississippi State has not reached the NCAA Tournament since 2009 and heads into the final week of the regular season squarely on the bubble. A big win over the ranked Volunteers would be a big boost to the Bulldogs’ resume.

Despite being picked to finish near the bottom of the SEC in the preseason, Tennessee may have already locked down its spot in the field of 68, something Volunteers coach Rick Barnes doesn’t take lightly.

“I’ve always appreciated it,” Barnes said of the postseason opportunity. “I’ve said it year after year, you don’t take it for granted, because it’s difficult to be a postseason team, it’s difficult to get there, and that’s why you have great admiration for the teams that seem to get there every year, because it’s not an easy thing to do.

“Everybody has a different route that they play to get there, but if you’re one of the 68 teams that get a chance to play for the big trophy, that has to be your goal. But it’s something that you never take for granted.”

The inside tandem of Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield have carried the Vols this season. Williams, an undersized sophomore forward, leads Tennessee in scoring (15.6) and is second in rebounding (5.9). Schofield is second in scoring (12.8) and leads the team in rebounding (6.2).

Tuesday’s game in Starkville, Miss., features the two reigning SEC co-players of the week in Schofield and Peters. Schofield had a career-high 25 points in the win over Ole Miss.

Even with player accolades coming in and his team climbing the rankings, Barnes said he remains focused of making the most out of this season for the Vols.

“I’ve been doing it too long to think about anything other than I want this team to max out,” Barnes said. “I want them to be the best that they can be and we wanted that with our other two teams here as well. You want to get better. You want to be a team that’s relevant every year and I just know that this group of guys has worked really hard.”

Mississippi State won last season’s meeting 64-59, but is 2-6 against the Volunteers since 2013.