Tennessee started this game on a 12-0 run and led 29-10 with 4:50 to play in the first half. The Vols let them get it back to 12 by halftime, then went back up 18 on a Grant Williams three with 17:51 to go. Jordan Bone scored to put the Vols up 43-26 with 16:34 to play.
And then everything seemed to flip. Tennessee had frustrated Mississippi State all night to that point and gotten a balanced offensive attack. But the only points the Vols got over the next six minutes came via a Lew Evans corner three, which as we know is not ideal in this offense. Tennessee nudged it back to 11 with 10 minutes to play, then went another five minutes without making a shot, which was enough for Mississippi State to tie the game.
Frustration for MSU early led to bad shots and little production. Frustration for Tennessee late led to transition offense for the Bulldogs, and the Vols struggled to stop it. When Bone put the Vols up 53-51 with 4:56 to go, Mississippi State answered with a three for its first lead, then won a wild loose ball scramble leading to another open three to push it to 57-53.
The Vols did rediscover some offense in the final four minutes, but couldn’t get a stop other than one shot clock violation. The Bulldogs beat the Vols at their own game: three offensive rebounds in the final minute helped MSU push the lead back to three, and Bone and Lamonte Turner missed good looks from the arc in the final 20 seconds before a pair of free throws sealed it.
This game was a chore to watch for both sides. Mississippi State shot 31% from the floor but won on the strength of 21 offensive rebounds, giving them 11 more shot opportunities than the Vols. Both teams were atrocious from the free throw line: Tennessee finished 10-of-22 (45.5%), Mississippi State 15-of-31 (48.4%).
Jordan Bone (13 points, 8 rebounds) and Grant Williams (11 points, 5 rebounds) were Tennessee’s most productive players, but it’s all relative today. Robert Hubbs struggled with just four points on 2-of-7 shooting.
The big question after every one of theses games will be Tennessee’s tournament hopes. But unless the Vols lose at home to Missouri or manage to win at Rupp, their resume won’t look drastically different than it does right now in the details. Kansas State helped ensure Tennessee’s good wins look even better with a win at Baylor today. Overall, the Vols simply need more wins - we think 18 to get in the conversation, 19 to get on the floor - and this was a missed opportunity to get one. Tennessee goes to 13-10 (5-5) and will welcome Ole Miss to Knoxville Wednesday night, another chance to get one of those needed wins.
The Rebels also erased a big Vol second half lead, the only point of contention with Rick Barnes’ squads right now. Last year a lesser Tennessee team gave away big second half leads against TCU and Alabama in the last week of January. This one looked a little familiar in the first week of February: stagnant offense leading to poor transition defense.
We’ll see how Rick Barnes and the Vols bounce back Wednesday night.