For a game Tennessee led by 10 at halftime with a second half where every possession was played with that lead between 6-12 points...man, this was a really good ballgame.
LSU never went away, repeatedly knocking Tennessee's lead back down to six or seven in the second half. Credit Johnny O'Bryant III, who took advantage of Tennessee's smaller lineup to score 24 points on 9 of 16 shooting with 8 rebounds before fouling out. The Tigers shot 46% from the floor, but were hurt by ten misses from Anthony Hickey (5 of 15).
However, each time LSU threatened, Tennessee turned them away with a big shot. Skylar McBee hit a huge three in the corner on a press break. Jarnell Stokes also had a spectacular press break, finishing with the double-double we've come to expect from him at 13 points and 11 rebounds. And Trae Golden was great again, scoring 20 with 14 in the first half to build the 10 point lead. The Vol point guard had five turnovers but added eight assists.
But the night truly belonged to Jordan McRae.
McRae went for 34 points, a new career high. It matches what Jeronne Maymon had against Memphis in Maui last season, but that came in double overtime. I believe this makes McRae the first Vol to hit 30+ in regulation since Chris Lofton, who nailed that feat nine times in his career. But since Lofton's career high is 35 against Texas, another overtime affair, I believe this ties McRae with the best Lofton ever did in regulation. That's high praise.
Jordan was 6 of 6 from the three point line, continuing an incredible two game stretch for the whole team: 5 of 5 against Kentucky, 10 of 15 against LSU. You know Jarnell's presence and productivity have a ton to do with this team getting better looks. But McRae was hot from everywhere, going 13 of 18 from the floor and hitting only two free throws, meaning he got an incredible 32 points on 18 shots from the floor. This was rare.
But good basketball is becoming common for this team. Paced by its three best players, Tennessee has become a good team on both ends of the floor. Obviously the Vols are a great team when shooting an otherworldly percentage from three, but even when that eventually cools at least some, Tennessee is still doing work at the free throw line (18 of 21 tonight) and keeping turnovers manageable with 13 tonight. Our best basketball we first saw at Vanderbilt last week continues to evolve.
When the Vols play like this they only need minimal contributions from the rest of the squad on the offensive end, and they got just enough tonight: six from Josh Richardson, six from Skylar McBee, and a big three from Armani Moore. But when you've got three guys combining for 67 points on a team that couldn't score 40 in a game in the non-conference, you enjoy every minute of it.
Tennessee got a small bump in RPI, rising from 69 to 64. More important in the present moment, the Vols get above .500 in the SEC at 7-6 and keep themselves alive in the quest for a bye in the SEC Tournament til Friday. The Gators will win the league, but behind them you've got Alabama at 9-3, then Kentucky and Ole Miss at 8-4 (three of the five teams the Vols played twice this year). Arkansas and Missouri are 7-5, and quietly Georgia is also .500 at 6-6. That's seven teams counting us playing for the other three byes in the last three weeks.
Now, people are going to start talking about Florida, currently up eight at Missouri heading toward halftime. The Gators come to Knoxville a week from tonight for the big 9:00 PM ESPN showdown game. People will talk about what a huge opportunity that would be for us, then they'll talk about how we crushed the Gators twice last year with much of the same personnel on the floor. They're going to start talking about what could happen to us if we find a way to beat them again.
But you don't listen to them, because first we have to beat Texas A&M on the road on Saturday.
If Tennessee is going to move from "eh, maybe" to brackets across the land, they need to keep rolling. And you don't want to get in a spot where you feel like all of your tournament hopes ride on beating a great Florida team, and that's exactly what it will feel like if we lose to A&M. The Vols can only go dancing one game at a time, so forget Florida and focus on the next one.
Tonight was another chapter of Tennessee's best basketball. If we bring that to College Station, then and only then can we talk about that Florida game like it means something special. Enjoy tonight, and enjoy the anticipation. Enjoy watching other games knowing it means something for Tennessee, in conference standings and in RPI. The Vols have played their way back to relevance late in the season, to the absolute credit of Cuonzo Martin and his players. And Jordan McRae was on another level tonight - 34 points doesn't come around every night.
This is fun again. Let's enjoy it, and let's keep it that way on Saturday.