KNOXVILLE – Tennessee’s seniors might’ve played their final game at Thompson-Boling Arena.
At least they hope that’s the case.
Any more home games would mean a third-straight trip to the NIT, and this is a team now trending towards a berth in the NCAA tournament.
The Vols (20-11, 11-7 SEC) reeled off their fourth straight win in emphatic fashion on Saturday afternoon, blasting the visiting Missouri Tigers (21-10, 9-9 SEC), a team desperately clinging onto NCAA tournament hopes itself, by a final of 72-45 in front of a season-high crowd of 18,519.
“Just a fun evening,” said Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin. “Guys played hard again. The last three and a half games, we’re playing great basketball on both ends of the floor – really defending. Again, this is what I envisioned defensively, when you completely buy in and sell yourself to the team and you defend at a high level. That’s just a credit to all the guys. Every guy is doing his part.”
The Vols shut down Missouri's talented guards, holding SEC Player of the Year candidate Jabari Brown to just eight points and limiting the output of Jordan Clarkson and Earnest Ross as well.
Now the Vols, which haven’t trailed in their last 160 minutes of game time, head to the SEC tournament as the No. 4 seed, securing a double bye and a trip straight to the quarterfinals. The Vols lost an opportunity to jump up to the No. 3 seed when Georgia knocked off LSU later on Saturday afternoon.
Tennessee will play the winner of Arkansas vs. either Auburn or South Carolina on Friday afternoon at approximately 3:30 p.m. ET, depending on when the earlier games end.
A win in that game would set up a likely rematch with Florida, a team that has defeated UT twice this season already.
This Saturday’s performance looked like a replay of UT’s last two dominant wins over Vanderbilt and Auburn, except the competition was a notch higher. The Vols jumped out to a convincing lead early and never were in danger.
Tennessee built a 21-9 advantage 10 minutes in. The Tigers never got closer than nine points the rest of the game. And after a sloppy first couple of minutes in the second half, the Vols really cranked up the intensity, turning a 10-point lead into a 24-point advantage in a matter of minutes, fueled by a 10-0 run in that stretch.
Antonio Barton was hot again, hitting 4 of 7 from behind the arc on his way to 16 points. The senior point guard has now hit 13 of his last 22 3-pointers over the last three contests in addition to handling the point extremely well.
"Barton is doing a better job of running this team as point guard," Martin said. "It is not just his shots that are falling. It is his whole floor game. We did not get a lot of production off the ball screen early in the season. Now we are getting that production, and I think it has a lot to do with him."
The Vols haven’t sealed anything in terms of the NCAA tournament. But blowing the doors off of a respectable Missouri team and winning their last three games by a combined total of 230-137 certainly sends a loud message that the Vols are playing their best basketball of the year.
Perhaps if the Vols end up right on the edge of the NCAA tournament bubble, these style points will pay off.
“I think the way we’ve been winning games – I think it definitely helps,” said forward Jeronne Maymon, who scored just four points, but grabbed 10 rebounds. “I think it shows that we have what it takes.”
And while Martin thinks the Vols have done enough to make the NCAA tournament, he also knows the best recipe to guarantee anything is to keep winning. One or two wins in Atlanta will almost certainly send the Vols dancing. But he knows nothing – including these dominant victories – is enough to allow the Vols let their guard down at this point.
“I’m not on that committee,” Martin said. “I don’t know what they’re thinking. For us, the most important thing is we have a game on Friday. We’ll figure out who we’re playing and that’s the only thing that really matters.”
• Tennessee wore alternate uniforms for the first time this season. They were primarily white with different gray and bright orange trim. Maymon said it was a surprise for the team. Earlier this week, The Vols unveilved alternate gray uniforms that might be worn in the postseason.
• Despite the large crowd on Saturday, Tennessee finishes the season with an average home attendance of 15,475 per game, down 1,160 per game from last season.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga