With ten minutes to go, Missouri took a 50-42 lead and Cuonzo Martin called timeout. In his postgame show with Bob Kesling, Coach Martin said he told his guys in that huddle, "Here it is. If we come back to the next huddle down 15, it's all over. Dig deep."
In what was certainly a do or die game for Tennessee's late season momentum and almost certainly its at-large tournament hopes, the Volunteers out-toughed and ultimately out-played a really good Missouri team, closing the game on a 22-9 run before Missouri dropped in a meaningless buzzer three. The Vols scored the most important win of Cuonzo Martin's career 64-62 over the Tigers, and now Tennessee goes to Championship Week with a tournament-worthy resume.
It was never easy, and in fact, it's never been easy during these last four weeks other than the 30 point beatdown of Kentucky; more on that in a second. The Vols have gone through Memorial Gym, a huge effort from Johnny O'Bryant III, four overtimes at Texas A&M, a top-tier Florida team, a game Auburn team on Senior Night, and today, a big challenge from a Missouri team with all the pieces for success in March. Why Missouri continues to lose close games on the road is beyond me; today was Mizzou's fifth one possession or overtime loss on the road since January 30. This is not a team anyone should long to play now that road games are over.
But what was so amazing about Tennessee's performance today is the way the Vols took Missouri's greatest strength - rebounding - and absolutely decimated the Tigers on the glass.
Tennessee out-rebounded Missouri 40-27. The Vols grabbed 17 offensive rebounds to Mizzou's six. Leading the way, to no surprise, was Jarnell Stokes: 13 points and 13 rebounds. In two games against Alex Oriakhi, Stokes has 29 points and 25 rebounds. Oriakhi (6 and 6 today) has 12 points, 13 rebounds, and 9 fouls.
The Vol wings got it done on the glass as well, with thirteen combined between Jordan McRae and Josh Richardson. You can argue this was the best offensive performance of Richardson's career, finishing with an 11/7 and hitting key midrange shots, including the one that sparked Tennessee's final run. And McRae, who was defended brilliantly at the first half and went to the locker room with a single point, made his final case for SEC Player of the Year in the second half with 14 points. His two threes during that final stretch helped the Vols overcome a monstrous dunk by Laurence Bowers, becoming the first human being to posterize Jarnell Stokes. That dunk threatened to steal momentum when the Vols needed it most. Instead, Tennessee did what Cuonzo Martin has preached throughout his entire career: accept the challenge. McRae set the table, and then Trae Golden feasted on a deep three that pushed the Vols in front by four and put the pressure squarely on Missouri. How balanced were the Vols today? 15 for McRae, 13 for Stokes, 12 for Golden, 11 for Richardson. Add in a pair of big threes from senior Skylar McBee, and you've got a recipe for success against good teams like this. When the Vols get good basketball from their big three, they usually just need one other contributor to push them over the top.
And we haven't even talked about Quinton Cheivous, who played the best game of his young career with 7 points and 5 rebounds. The Vols played just eight men today, and man, it worked.
The Vols saved their best basketball for the finish, both in this game and this season. The Vols finish 11-7 in SEC play and earn the fifth seed, meaning they will face the winner of Mississippi State and South Carolina, Thursday around 3:30 PM ET. Win there, and it's the rubber match with Alabama on Friday, with a potential date with our friends from Gainesville on Saturday.
The Vols' RPI is at 55 heading to Nashville. That's one better than Ole Miss, five north of Alabama, and five back of Kentucky. But the Vols flat out dominate all three of those teams in both strength of schedule and quality wins. The Rebels (SOS #129) did sweep us, but both of those games were played in mid-January, and things have certainly changed since then. As the captain of the head-to-head police department, if Ole Miss gets in and we do not after similar runs in Nashville, I won't complain too loud.
However, how anyone could say this Kentucky team is in and this Tennessee team is out right now is beyond me. Good win for Kentucky over Florida today, sure. We've been there, done that. Beat Missouri without needing overtime too. And, oh yeah, we blew their doors off by THIRTY POINTS in Knoxville. Kentucky is a 4-3 club without Nerlens Noel. You know me: I can't stand Kentucky but have more respect for them than anyone else. Truly, I hope we both get in; the more the merrier from our conference. But if we have similar runs in Nashville and Kentucky gets in while we go home because of the name on the front of their jersey, I will light my keyboard on fire.
If you want the best 68 teams right now, you want Tennessee. Because the Vols are on a better run than anyone in the SEC in the last four weeks, a tear I'd put against any team in the country right now. Tennessee's best basketball is a force to be reckoned with against any team in America. Bring it on. While the rest of the bubble has been flirting with disaster, Tennessee has been winning ballgames. And this run is way more impressive than the 2012 close: four road wins, the two best teams in the conference, and a thirty point win over our biggest rivals. This is Tennessee's best basketball, and it is a dangerous thing. Good dancer, too.
But it's not over yet.
Now we go to Championship Week, cheering against bubble teams and everyone but the favorite in mid-major tournaments. It's Cuonzo Martin's job to say his team is in right now. It's his job to promote our tournament-worthy resume. But deep down, everyone wearing orange knows it's not over yet. It's a very risky thing to leave your fate in the hands of the selection committee with any doubt on the table. We'll get into the numbers and the size of the bubble next week. But for now, it's still very simple. The Vols go to Nashville to do exactly what we've been doing all the way home: win.