NASHVILLE, Tenn. – There’s a piece of advice often given to teams that enter a game as a heavy favorite like Tennessee did in the second round of the SEC tournament on Thursday afternoon.
Don’t let the opponent stick around.
That’s how the Vols, a 13.5-point favorite over Mississippi State coming into the game, handled their business – for the most part– against the Bulldogs.
They used separate 12-0 and 14-2 runs in the first half to build a 35-19 halftime advantage over the 13th seeded Bulldogs. Mississippi State never got any closer than nine in the second half as the Vols pulled away for a 69-53 victory.
“It was just being able to get out in transition which is what we like to do,” point guard Trae Golden said of Tennessee’s early success. “Jarnell [Stokes] is really athletic, out runs the usual big men. That’s what we’re trying to do, force turnovers with out pressure and get out on the transition and make plays.”
That doesn’t mean it was always pretty, though. Tennessee turned it over 16 times and botched a few easy bucket opportunities. Though the game never seemed to slip out of Tennessee’s grasp – there were moments of concern that could bite the Vols if they perform similarly against higher-level opponents.
“We were careless with the basketball [late],” Martin said. “Give those guys credit. They stayed aggressive, they used their length and size and forced us to make plays. We didn’t want to score as quickly in the shot clock.”
Two key late plays insured that the Bulldogs improved second-half play didn’t turn into a disaster for the Vols. Forward Jarnell Stokes cleaned up a missed Jordan McRae free throw at the 4:30 mark of the second half and put it back in for an easy bucket that extended UT’s lead to 62-49.
Jordan McRae, who led the Vols with 17 points, put an exclamation mark on the win with a steal and thunderous 360 jam at the 1:26 mark to extend UT’s lead to 67-51.
Trae Golden had 15 points, Skylar McBee hit 3 of 8 from beyond the arc, Jarnell Stokes added 10 points and nine rebounds, but it was the performance of redshirt freshman Quinton Chievous that gave the Vols an unexpected spark off the bench.
Chievous had a career-high 10 points on an efficient 5-of-8 shooting afternoon to go along with four rebounds.
“You’re talking about a guy that’s consumed with getting better,” Martin said of Chievous, who had a nine-game stretch of not playing from Jan. 9 to Feb. 6. “He’s a better 3-point shooter than he shows, but just to his credit, he stays locked in. He wanted to be a good ball player. That’s why he’s playing.”
Tennessee held a significant depth advantage over an MSU squad that came into Thursday’s game on less than 24 hours of rest and with only eight available players – two of whom are walk-ons. The Bulldogs lost guards Trivante Bloodman and Tyson Cunningham for stretches during the game due to minor injuries as well.
“I hate to be this way, but I don’t even notice anymore,” Mississippi State coach Rick Ray said of the injury problems the Bulldogs have faced this season. “It seems like every game we have somebody go down with some sort of ailment I just sub them right away and get a report from our trainer.”
Tennessee advances to face No. 4 seed Alabama in a quarterfinal matchup on Friday (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU), a team the Vols split the season series with this year – defeating the Crimson Tide 54-53 in Knoxville on Jan. 26 and falling 68-65 in Tuscaloosa on Jan. 12.
“Probably us just going out and coming and getting a big win, finally get over the hump as far as winning close games,” Stokes said of his memory of UT’s win over Alabama earlier this season. “I feel like, you know, earlier in the season we weren't winning close games and around that time we started pulling out those close games. I think that really just gave a lot of guys confidence.”
• Thursday’s win over Mississippi State was Martin’s 100th career win as a head coach.
• This is the sixth time in the last eight seasons the Vols have reached 20 wins.
• McRae (17 points) scored in double figures for the ninth game in a row.
• Chievous has scored a combined 17 points in the last two games (Missouri and Mississippi State). He only had 32 career points coming into the Missouri game.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee football for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga