ST. LOUIS — The response to the win, on paper the biggest for Tennessee basketball in three years, was not exultant. It was businesslike. Some muted celebration, then head down and to the locker room. Another game awaits.
“Hopefully we’ll be better tomorrow,” head coach Rick Barnes said after his team’s 62-59 win over Mississippi State, which as Barnes’ tone indicates was not pretty.
But it still clinched Tennessee a spot in the SEC semifinals, its first trip that far since 2014. The Volunteers are also ensured of their first NCAA tournament trip since 2015.
This season, however, increased expectations. And with top-seeded Auburn eliminated earlier in the day, second-seeded Tennessee is now nominally the favorite. Although Kentucky and its hordes of fans here would disagree. Tennessee wouldn’t face the Wildcats until Sunday’s championship anyway.
Tennessee, after several years in the wilderness, playing on Wednesday in the SEC tournament, now finds itself in this position: Barnes was asked Friday night about keeping his team motivated, knowing it already had an NCAA bid locked up.
“Well, again, there’s a championship to be won,” Barnes said. “This is a great experience for these guys. We’ve been in a situation, what, three years ago we played in the play-in game.”
The experience does help for next week. Barnes isn’t new to any of this, having coached in so many tournament games at Texas, Clemson and elsewhere. Volunteer fans know what March excitement feels like. But the players on this team are new to it.
So a bit of March drama on a neutral court can never hurt. That’s what they got on Friday night.
Mississippi State (22-11) came in fighting for an NCAA bid, knowing it had to win several games, at minimum, to get one. So even when Tennessee led at halftime, and kept building leads, the Bulldogs kept fighting back. The lead changed seven times during the game.
Mississippi State cut it to one with 4:17 left. Tennessee pushed it back up to seven, with sophomore guard Lamonte Turner (a team-high 15 points off the bench) leading the way.
“We understand Lamonte is really good end of games, and he’s been that way throughout the year,” Tennessee forward Grant Williams said. “He’s proven himself. We don’t have an issue with that. We encourage it because there’s times where guys aren’t playing well, and we know Lamonte is able to make that shot no matter how he’s playing.”
But Mississippi State charged back, with a steal and then a 3-pointer making it 58-56. Tennessee pushed it back up to five – and again MSU came back.
It was a two-point game when MSU’s Xavian Stapleton got open for a 3 that would have put it ahead. But it missed and Tennessee got the rebound.
That was a theme: Tennessee dominated the glass, 50-33, and a good thing for the Volunteers that they did.
“The rebounding was the difference for us. I don’t think we’ve outrebounded someone like that all year,” Barnes said. “We had 22 offensive rebounds, and that was the difference. We were chasing balls down, and we needed it.”