Tennessee’s margin of error has shrunk to practically zero.
Already right on the edge of the projected NCAA tournament field, the Vols dropped a 75-70 contest at Missouri (18-7, 6-6 SEC) on Saturday afternoon, leaving UT in position to possibly need to win the rest of its six games and/or make a strong run in the SEC tournament in order to make the Big Dance.
"Thought it was a hard fought game," said Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin. "I thought we got out to a slow start with our transition defense. We dug ourselves a hole and were able to bounce back. In the second half, we went back and forth and what it came down to was that some of our attempts from the 3-point line didn't fall.
"I thought [Jabari] Brown made plays to win the game and get to the free throw line. [Jordan] Clarkson made two big baskets to keep his team right there. Good team win for those guys."
The Vols, who had two more days than Mizzou to prepare for Saturday's game, have now dropped three of their last four games and lost consecutive SEC games for the first time all season.
It wasn’t for a lack of effort that the Vols (15-10, 6-6) fell at Mizzou. The execution just wasn't there down the stretch.
A Jordan McRae 3-pointer tied the game at 62 with 5:39 left in the game. Martin called a 20-second timeout after McRae’s 3, and Missouri, which led by as many as 13 in the first half, was the team that regained its composure.
The Tigers reeled off a 9-3 run over the next few minutes to regain a 71-65 advantage with 47 seconds remaining.
UT still made it interesting down the stretch, however.
Guard Josh Richardson buried all three free throws after he was fouled on a 3-point attempt with 35 seconds left to cut Mizzou’s lead to one possession. The Vols forced a jump ball, regained possession and Richardson made two more from the stripe after being fouled away from the ball to cut it to 71-70.
Two Jabari Brown free throws pushed the Tigers’ lead back to 73-70. McRae missed one long 3-point try on the ensuing possession, but the Vols got the ball back with a few seconds remaining after the rebound attempt deflected off the Tigers. After an officials’ timeout for an instant replay to confirm the call, Jeronne Maymon’s inbounds pass was deflected and stolen. Missouri’s Johnathan Williams III hit two free throws on the other end to seal the victory.
"[Missouri] just switched out on the screens," McRae said of UT's failed inbounds play. "They did what they were supposed to do, and they got a hand on it at the end."
McRae finished with a game-high 31 points as he recorded his fourth-career 30-point game. McRae, Stokes (13) and Richardson (16) combined for nearly 86 percent of UT’s offense. The other six players who made an appearance for UT combined for a total of just 10 points.
It was another tough night at the point guard position for UT with Darius Thompson and Antonio Barton combining for just two points on 1 of 9 shooting. They totaled two turnovers and just three assists between them.
SEC Player of the Year candidate Jabari Brown had a big game for the Tigers, finishing with 24 points on 8 of 12 shooting to go along with five boards and a pair of steals.
"Jabari isn't going to just force shots because that's what he does," said Missouri head coach Frank Haith. "He's a mature player. He's very patient in what he does. We ran some plays for him and he made some big shots."
And now with few certainties around the NCAA tournament selection process, it’s impossible to know exactly what UT needs to do from here, though it’s fairly safe to assume that the Vols needs a very strong finish to end on the right side of the bubble.
The Vols finish their schedule with home games against Georgia, Vanderbilt and Missouri in addition to road contests at Texas A&M, Mississippi State and Auburn. It’s reasonable to think UT could be the favorite in most, if not all, of those games, though fielding a consistent squad on a nightly basis has been UT’s issue for most of the season.
Tennessee returns home to face Georgia on Tuesday night at 9:00 p.m. ET (ESPNU).
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga