KNOXVILLE – In a game full of runs, Tennessee got the one it needed down the stretch.
Trailing 68-66, the Vols reeled off a 7-0 run that put them up 73-68 with 2:25 remaining and gave them command late in the contest against Arkansas, a team that had won just two of its past 19 SEC road contests coming into Wednesday night.
Five of the points in the 7-0 run came on one extended possession. UT (12-6, 3-2 SEC) forward Jeronne Maymon was fouled at the 2:52 mark and made two free throws to tie the game at 68.
Officials ruled the foul intentional, saying that Arkansas guard Kikko Haydar made no play on the ball while making contact with Maymon, giving UT the ball back and Jordan McRae the opportunity to sink a crucial 3-pointer that gave UT a 71-68 edge and brought a relatively quiet group of approximately 14,000 fans to their feet. Two more free throws by McRae on the next possession then gave UT some breathing room.
"I think it gave us momentum, especially when Jeronne made the free throws,” said UT coach Cuonzo Martin. “I think it helped us. You have to make free throws. You have to continue to make plays, because that's the type of team that will continue to put the pressure on you.”
And the Vols did just that.
McRae, who finished with a season-high 34 points and scored UT's final 13 points, hit 8 of 10 free throws after that point and Tennessee hung on for the 81-74 win in the closing minutes.
Arkansas coach Mike Anderson, meanwhile, didn't like the intentional foul call that started UT's late run.
"McRae played well, but the MVP was the flagrant foul call," he said. "You get in two or three minutes and that's one that should play on. I thought it just changed the whole dynamic of how the game was going."
UT’s late 7-0 spurt was one of many throughout the contest. The Vols and Razorbacks (12-6, 1-4) exchanged runs during a back-and-forth first half that saw five ties and fives lead changes.
Arkansas ran out to an 11-6 advantage in the opening minutes, but UT jumped in front and built a 21-15 lead of its own after a 12-0 run. A late 5-0 spurt by the Vols helped give them a narrow 39-37 edge at the break.
“I thought our guys did a really good job of fighting,” said Martin. “We got off to a slow start. I'm not sure what the reason is, but we got off to a slow start. I thought our guys did a good job fighting, especially down the stretch in that last four minutes, just really battling and trying to get stops.”
Swingman Armani Moore provided an early spark off the bench for UT. Moore, a 6-foot-5 sophomore who played sparingly earlier in the year, had his best two-way half of the year with five points, three rebounds and four blocks in the opening 20 minutes.
"I know my role pretty well,” said Moore. “I know I've got to be on the floor and be a defensive player, but that's cool with me. I like to just go out here and defend, rebound and play hard.”
While Moore gave a spark defensively, it was McRae that was the unquestioned offensive star down the stretch.
The Vols might not have escaped this one without him. After a 2 of 8 start from the field, McRae heated up in the second half.
“For him, that was more of Rocky Top [summer league],” Martin said of McRae’s strong late push. “Just let's play, getting up the court and making plays because the way they play, you have to be able to make individual plays and he did a good job of getting to the rim, getting to the free-throw line, knocking his shots down. Once he got his head up, he was good."
There’s perhaps nobody better in the conference right now at the line in late-game situations than McRae. The senior came into the Arkansas game shooting 89.7 percent from the charity stripe in the final four minutes of the game.
“I just really wanted the ball at the end of the game,” said McRae. “I knew with how they were guarding Jarnell [Stokes], it would be hard for him to score, and Jeronne as well. This is a game that we didn't want to lose at home, especially home games like this. We needed this win."
There might be no such thing as a must-win game in January, but the Vols certainly needed this one with a trip to Florida on Saturday and a visit from Ole Miss next Wednesday looming.
There will be plenty of mistakes to clean up as the Vols go forward. They continue to turn the ball over too much. They weren’t as dominant as normal on the boards and scoring production off the bench continues to be dismal. It wasn’t the type of win that will convince many that the Vols are indeed set to finish strong.
But this W will look just fine in March and the Vols will get back to work on the other issues.
“This is a team where they fight, they battle and make it hard on you,” Martin said. “This was a good win for our guys to be able to rebound the way we did late in the game."
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga