Sometimes referred to as the ‘Big 3’ before the season, Tennessee got huge production from Jarnell Stokes, Jeronne Maymon and Jordan McRae on Wednesday night at Mississippi State.
That trio combined for 54 points and 30 rebounds to help the Vols pick up a much-needed SEC road win over the Bulldogs by a final of 75-68 in front of a sparse crowd in Starkville.
"Even though it was a physical game, we had to get over that mental hump," said Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin. "We needed to get a win and move forward – you know worrying about bubbles and NCAAs and all that. We just need to play a basketball game and try to win the game and move on."
Though Tennessee (17-11, 8-7 SEC) led from wire-to-wire in the contest, the Bulldogs, who came into the game on a nine-game losing streak, kept it within a few possessions for much of the second half.
But every time MSU (13-15, 3-12) made it somewhat interesting, the Vols, particularly McRae, had an answer.
His made 3-pointer at the 11:57 mark of the second half stretched UT’s lead back to seven after MSU had it down to four on the previous possession. Back-to-back possessions capped off by McRae dunks helped UT build a 60-50 lead with 8:34 remaining. And when the Bulldogs got it back down to four with around two minutes left, McRae sunk a pair of free throw with 1:30 remaining to build the lead back to six. MSU couldn’t get any closer than that.
"When watching (Mississippi State) on film, you can't look at their record because they compete and play hard," said Martin. "It's amazing how when they get down in games how they can get themselves back in it. I was just trying to get our guys to understand that. We compete until the buzzer sounds because of the way they play and the way they compete."
McRae, who moved into ninth place on UT’s all-time list of the most made 3-pointers (168), finished with 29 points, 10 rebounds and four assists. Stokes had 14 points and nine boards. Maymon chipped in 10 points and 11 rebounds. The rest of the Vols combined for just 22 points and 10 rebounds.
The Vols controlled the game early and led by as many as 14 points in the first half. A 9-2 spurt early in the second half put the Bulldogs back within striking distance, however.
"They play hard, they played hard the whole game," McRae said of the Bulldogs. "We did a good job of not letting them get up in the second half."
The Bulldogs actually shot better than UT from the field, though the Vols were better from behind the arc and at the free-throw line. Forward Roquez Johnson paced MSU with 19 points in the losing effort.
The Vols return home to face Vanderbilt on Saturday at noon ET.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga