For approximately 35 minutes of game time, it looked like UT would be taking its battle at No. 8 Wichita State down to the wire. The Vols led for a few spurts and never let their deficit swell to more than two possessions for that period of time.
The Shockers then showed why they are the team coming off a Final Four run and off to a 10-0 start in 2013.
The Vols were down just two at the 6:50 mark of the second half after a pair of Jordan McRae free throws made it 51-49 in favor of the Shockers.
It was all Wichita State from there.
Playing in front of over 14,000 fans at Intrust Bank Arena, an off-campus venue where WSU occasionally hosts big games, the Shockers extended their lead beyond two possessions and then hit a dagger 3-pointer with 2:36 remaining that upped their lead to a dozen on their way to a 70-61 victory over UT (6-3).
“It was tough for us,” McRae said. “They just made some huge plays. They got us on the offensive glass and we’ve got to do a better job towards the end of the game.”
McRae notched 26 points and became UT’s 45th member of the 1,000-point club during Saturday’s effort. He had an emphatic dunk at the 12:45 mark that pulled UT to within one at that point, but was given a technical foul for his celebration, giving the Shockers the points right back after they converted on the two free throws.
Junior forward Jarnell Stokes notched just eight points and four boards after missing significant action due to foul trouble. He sat out the final six minutes of the first half after picking up two fouls, and eventually fouled out with a minute remaining.
The Shockers were paced by junior guard Tekele Cotton, who recorded 19 points, five rebounds, four assists and two steals in the winning effort. Forward Darius Carter contributed a game-high 14 rebounds.
“I thought he played a good game on both ends of the floor,” UT coach Cuonzo Martin said of Cotton. “He got to the free-throw line quite a bit, but I thought he impacted the game on defense. He had a key block on Jeronne and he had a key steal in transition. I thought he did a good job of playing on both ends.”
The Vols fell to 0-7 in true non-conference road games against Division-I competition under Cuonzo Martin with the loss. A road loss against a respected squad like WSU likely won’t be counted too harshly against the Vols come tournament time, though marquee non-conference wins have been what UT has lacked the last two seasons while trying to make a case to play in the Big Dance.
The Vols have four more non-conference home games – NC State (Wednesday), Morehead State, Virginia and Tusculum – before beginning SEC play on Jan. 7 at LSU.
“I think we’ll be ready to go,” Martin said. “You have to protect your home court. It’s four games, but the most important one is on Wednesday against NC State. We have to play hard from the start to finish of the game and secure both ends of the floor. We have to get production around the rim so we can knock those 3-point shots down.”
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga