KNOXVILLE — As most of the Thompson-Boling Arena crowd streamed toward the doors and the cold December air, Tennessee watched as North Carolina State slowly iced away a nonconference road win.
The story of the Volunteers' fourth loss of what's already been a disappointing season transpired long before the game's waning moments.
After a lifeless first half put Tennessee in a 17-point halftime hole, the Wolfpack withstood a second-half rally by the hosts in a 65-58 win on Wednesday night.
"Even though you're at home, you can't get down like that," said Vols forward Jeronne Maymon, who finished with 17 points and 16 rebounds. "Against a good team, you're not going to come back. They're always going to keep you at arm's distance.
"Maybe against a mediocre team, you could probably swindle a win out of there, but good teams, they're always going to keep you at arm's distance."
By the time Tennessee (6-4) cut a 37-20 deficit to 48-43 with more than eight minutes remaining, the Vols had expended so much energy there was little left for the game's final push.
T.J. Warren, who entered the game as the nation's sixth-leading scorer at 23.3 points per game, threw down a two-handed dunk in transition, and Desmond Lee's driving layup pushed the lead back to 11 and had most of the crowd out of their seats and filing toward the exits with 2:26 left.
"Coming out flat against teams and then trying to play come-back against good teams, that's not gonna work," Tennessee guard Jordan McRae said.
"We can't do that."
The Vols were coming off a tough loss at 11th-ranked an unbeaten Wichita State and starting a key homestand before SEC play, but they played without energy and were thoroughly outworked by the visitors in the first half.
Cuonzo Martin, the Vols' third-year coach, said he sensed his team was a little "flat" going into the game, yet he couldn't explain why Tennessee played so poorly.
"I really can't," he said, "because it was on both ends of the floor. It just felt like we were a step slow, and I thought we picked it up in the second half. But I can't.
"It's unlike us," he added. "We didn't compete on both ends of the floor. We didn't execute. Again, I thought we were a step slow on both ends, and they made shots, they made plays, they played with some energy. When you dig yourself a hole, then you've got to fight to get out, I thought our guys did a good job of responding."
By then, it was too late.
N.C. State attacked the rim, turned seven offensive rebounds into 10 second-chance points and scored 24 points in the paint.
Tennessee, meanwhile, shot an abysmal 24 percent, missed all nine 3-point attempts and had six shots blocked.
"I honestly couldn't explain it, and sometimes it just happens like that," Maymon said. "Next game, we've just got to try to pick our energy up and try to be locked in and focus on the task at hand: knowing assignments, being in rotations and just ready to play."
The Vols came out with much more juice after the break, evidenced by a 14-5 run in the half's first five minutes. When Darius Thompson turned a steal near midcourt into a layup, Tennessee's deficit was just five.
It would come no closer, as Warren scored 10 of his 21 points in the game's final eight minutes.
The Vols shot 29 percent for the game and 3-of-24 from 3-point range. Maymon, McRae and Jarnell Stokes combined for 48 of Tennessee's 58 points, but the trio combined to make just 15 of 43 shots. Guards Antonio Barton and Robert Hubbs III shot 2-of-15 combined.
"They're down. They're down," Martin said of his team. "The one thing we talk about all the time is [it's] more than just talent. There's got to be chemistry, got to be a flow, togetherness, finding ways to win games, accept their roles. You talk about being a great team, it's more than just guys with individual skill.
"Guys hurt about it, which you expect them to be."
A season that began with high hopes and higher expectations is already at a crucial point. Tennessee has four losses with three games left before SEC play, and there are problems that need to be fixed. The frustration continues to build, and it was very evident in McRae's voice during his postgame interview.
"Every game we lose is definitely on us, on us as players," he said. "I feel like the coaching staff is doing their job. Myself and Jeronne, we've got to lead better and can't allow those guys to come out flat.
"It's a long, long season," he added. "We've still got time to turn things around, but I mean, it's just a matter of the past two years of waiting till late January to try to turn things around. We've got to do it now.
Contact Patrick Brown at email@example.com.
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 ...