While the rest of us watched the end of Florida and South Carolina, Tennessee opened SEC play on a 12-0 run in Starkville, forcing six Mississippi State turnovers before you could pick up the phone and tell DirecTV to put the game on. The Bulldogs would rally, taking advantage of early foul trouble on Josh Richardson and Armani Moore, pulling back to within three at halftime.
Fouls would be a theme. Coming in the Vols' pressure defense and smaller bodies led the SEC with 21.3 fouls per game. But clearly the Vols or the refs or both were looking to make a statement as league play began: 32 fouls on the guys in orange tonight, combined with 21 on Mississippi State. 53 total fouls is the most we've seen since the season-opening point-of-emphasis game against VCU. Fortunately for Tennessee, the Bulldogs missed 20 free throws, going 24 of 44 on the night.
Mississippi State also went 11 minutes without a made basket in the second half, from the opening tip-in by Travis Daniels cut the UT lead to one at 19:35 to Daniels' three at 8:34. By that point State was down 18, with most of the damage coming in a 90 second barrage. With UT leading 32-27 with 13:07 to play, Detrick Mostella buried a three, stole the inbounds pass, then buried another three. Then Derek Reese scored five points in a row.
That should have put the game out of reach, but the sheer volume of fouls sent Armani Moore, Kevin Punter, and Willie Carmichael to the bench. Tennessee was one Derek Reese foul away from having to put walk-on Galen Campbell on the floor after Mostella apparently tweaked an ankle. Mississippi State cut the lead to eight with two minutes to play, but Reese again made an end-of-shot-clock three - no bank this time - to push the lead back to double digits and end the threat.
So Tennessee wins its SEC opener 61-47. It's a road win. It's (probably) the worst team in the league. Mississippi State made one three pointer and missed 20 free throws. But the Vols got zero from Armani Moore and Josh Richardson was just 3 of 13. And Tennessee still won by double digits.
Outside the Mostella/Reese spurt, Kevin Punter was the MVP tonight with 15 points before fouling out. Tennessee got balanced contributions from everyone, which they'll need. They also shot 10 of 20 from the arc, the second best performance of the year behind 10 of 18 at NC State. After a brutal start from the arc this season (29 of 108 in the first seven games, 26.8%), Tennessee has slowly warmed up from outside (49 of 108 in the last six games, 45.3%).
It was ugly, in part due to things outside of Tennessee's control. But this is not the year to complain about ugliness. It may even be the year to celebrate it. Either way, the Vols open 1-0 in the SEC and are now 9-4 overall. Competition ramps up Saturday when Alabama comes to Knoxville.