KNOXVILLE — Tennessee basketball players aren't allowed to wear hats during interviews.
Unless the headgear is a symbol of coach Cuonzo Martin's program.
So Jarnell Stokes was permitted to wear an orange hard hat with the Volunteers' Power-T logo on the front after Tennessee rallied to beat Missouri 64-62 in the regular-season finale Saturday.
"Coach Martin gave these to us to remind us to wear our hard hats in games," he explained.
In this game, the hat fit, too.
Its NCAA tournament hopes on the line against a talented team that had scored 89 or more points during a three-game winning streak entering the game and that led the Southeastern Conference in rebounding, Tennessee (19-11, 11-7) toughed its way to a win.
As it did last season, Martin's team overcame the struggles of a 1-4 start in league play to win eight of nine games heading into the SEC tournament. Fifth-seeded Tennessee will play at 3:30 p.m. Thursday against either South Carolina or Mississippi State with Alabama waiting for a Friday quarterfinal.
"That," Martin said, "says a lot about the character and toughness of the team ... to fight the way these guys have fought down the stretch of a season. I thought we were an NCAA tournament team. When you're talking about 68 teams, we're one of them, but you've got to do your job. I think the job is done.
"Our next job is to go compete in a tough SEC tournament in Nashville, but as far as the NCAA tournament's concerned, I felt like the work is done and I think that just solidified it."
In front of an over-capacity crowd at Thompson-Boling Arena, the Vols did the little things in the big moments with their season on the line.
A second-chance basket in traffic by Jordan McRae that completed the Vols' rally.
A deflected inbounds pass by Josh Richardson that led to a steal with Tennessee up 60-57.
A powerful inside move by Stokes to capitalize on Richardson's defensive play.
"They were fighting to win a basketball game. We were, so to speak, fighting for our lives," Martin said. "That's the difference when it gets down to it down the stretch of a game. Not saying they didn't want to win, but I think we were fighting for a little bit more."
The real fight began long before the game's final moments.
Missouri (22-9, 11-7) took a 10-3 out of the gates. With Laurence Bowers, the skinny 6-foot-8 Memphis native, shooting over smaller Tennessee defenders and blowing by the Vols' big men, the Tigers pushed ahead in the second half after a tied halftime score. Bowers and point guard Phil Pressey made 3-pointers as Missouri went on an 8-2 spurt followed by a 6-0 run to extend the advantage.
With the Vols trailing 50-42 with 9:57 on the clock, Martin called time out.
"I just said, 'Here we go. Here it is,'" the coach recalled.
"I don't really remember exactly what was said," said Richardson, who scored 11 points, "but I remember coming out of the huddle, and [we were] just telling each other, 'Stay calm and play our game. We can't panic.'
"I think that might have been the turning point."
The response took a few possessions, but it started with Richardson's basket, then McRae's 3. The eight-point deficit suddenly turned into a 60-53 lead as the Vols outscored the Tigers 16-3 during a seven-minute stretch that included an 11-0 run.
The Vols have an "emphasis of the day" for each practice, and Friday's message was simple: Do or die.
"We were fighting for our life," said Stokes, who double-doubled with 13 points and 13 rebounds. "I think Coach Martin reminded us at that timeout that this is our season at stake."
With the game at stake, Pressey rushed a 3, which hit only air with 15 seconds remaining and Missouri trailing 62-59.
"Like I've been saying all year, it shows our team has matured a lot from ... the beginning of the year," McRae said after playing through 4-of-11 shooting and five turnovers to lead the Vols with 15 points. "We're getting stronger as a unit. We just got together and said, 'One guy's not going to do this. We've all got to do it as a team.'"
With the right hats, too.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...