NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee did Thursday afternoon what a team worthy of NCAA tournament consideration is supposed to do this time of year.
And that’s beat teams you’re supposed to beat like Mississippi State, which fell 69-53 to the Volunteers in the second round of the Southeastern Conference tournament in front of 10,065 at Bridgestone Arena.
In winning its ninth game in 10 outings, fifth-seeded Tennessee (20-11) advanced to Friday’s quarterfinal round to play No. 4 seed Alabama (20-11), another SEC team trying to pad its NCAA tourney resume by stringing together significant wins this week.
Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin doesn’t figure Friday’s match with Alabama to be an elimination game for NCAA tourney worthiness, at least not for his team. He said Thursday after the win over the Bulldogs that his team had already accomplished enough to be worthy of an NCAA tourney at-large bid, should it not win the SEC tourney and get the league’s automatic bid.
“I said after we beat the Missouri team, we’re a good team,” Martin said matter-of-factly about closing the regular season last Saturday with a 64-62 win over a team that is generally regarded as already among the NCAA tourney field.
Among those nine wins in 10 contests down the stretch, the Volunteers also beat SEC regular-season champion Florida and then-No. 25 Kentucky, the defending national champion that is yet another SEC team sitting on the NCAA tourney bubble.
“It’s something we’re not thinking about right now,” Vols junior point guard Trae Golden said of his team’s NCAA Tournament chances. “We’re just in the SEC tournament, just trying to make sure we get a SEC championship. All we thought about was Mississippi State, and now our focus is on Alabama.”
Count Bulldogs coach Ricky Ray among those who feel Tennessee had already done enough to get into the NCAA tournament before Thursday’s game.
“I thought Tennessee was an NCAA tournament team before we played them,” he said, “and I definitely think that now. I don’t think they needed that win to validate them being in the NCAA tournament.”
Tennessee junior guard Jordan McRae continued his recent scoring surge by notching a team-high 17 points that included a twirling 360-degree dunk on a breakaway that climaxed the victory in the waning moments. Over the last seven games, he is averaging 24.6 points per game.
Also adding to Tennessee’s balanced attack were Golden with 15 points, freshman reserve forward Quinton Chievous with 10 points and sophomore forward Jarnell Stokes with 10 points and a game-high nine rebounds.
Tennessee and Alabama split their regular-season series by holding serve at home with two hotly contested games. The Vols beat the Crimson Tide 54-53 in Knoxville on Jan. 26. Two weeks earlier, Alabama knocked off the Vols 68-65 in Tuscaloosa.
Martin feels his team is playing much better now than when it played Alabama twice back in January, thanks in large part to going to a four-guard lineup to surround Stokes in the middle. Since that change in the starting lineup, the Vols are 8-1.
“I think we’re a good basketball team,” said Martin, whose Vols posted their first 20-win season since 2009-10. “We have guys that are scoring the ball. For us, it starts with Jarnell Stokes. Trae is also playing at the level we expect.
” … Then, we changed our lineup. We’re four guards, for the most part. I think what it does more than anything, it gives Jarnell a chance to score around the rim to make plays, to have spacing, because you got guys that can make shots and make plays.”
Mississippi State (10-22), a 70-59 winner Wednesday over South Carolina in the SEC tourney’s first round, closed its first season under Ray with only six scholarship players available. Prior to the loss to Tennessee, the Bulldogs had won three of four games.
Freshman guard Craig Sword led the 13th-seeded Bulldogs with 19 points, 13 of which came in the second half when Mississippi State played evenly with the Volunteers after trailing 35-19 at halftime.
“This is my first time being a head coach,” Ray said. “I’ve been in this business for 20 years, and I’ve never been in a situation where a team has dealt with this much adversity on and off the court. And I can’t tell you how proud I am to be the coach here at Mississippi State because our kids, no matter what happened, continued to fight and play hard and represent the university well.”
That showed in the second half after Tennessee methodically took control of the game in the first half. After the Bulldogs scored the first four points of the game, the Volunteers answered with a 12-0 run, steadily building the lead to as many as 19 points after Chievous followed a shot with a slam dunk to cap a 10-0 run.
In trailing by 16 at halftime, Mississippi State made only 7-of-27 shots for a chilly 25.9 percent from the field. Making matters worse for the Bulldogs was that they committed 11 of 15 turnovers in the first half that led to 13 Tennessee points.
The Volunteers were never really threatened in the second half, although the Bulldogs did pull within nine points at 58-49 with 4:42 remaining following a free throw Sword.
In the final two minutes, though, McRae made 3-of-4 free throws and accentuated the victory with the acrobatic dunk that brought the crowd of mostly Tennessee fans to their feet.
“I thought both teams competed,” Martin said. “I think as a coach, that’s the first thing, how hard your teams play, how they competed. I thought we did a good job getting out of the gate and making plays.”